A century of moments from Gnter Grass

Widely regarded as one of Germany's greatest living writers and winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Literature, Gnter Grass has combined imaginative vision, political commitment, humane wisdom, and an unfailing sense of humor to keep his equilibrium in a confusing world.

Starting in 1959 with "The Tin Drum," a powerful blend of fantasy and recent German history (it covers the turbulent and terrible years 1925 to 1955), he has written more than 45 books. A sculptor and a graphic artist as well as a writer, Grass has also taken an active role in politics, campaigning for the Social Democrats.

Born to German-Polish parents in Danzig in 1927, Grass grew up in the Nazi era and served in the Army. Participant, witness, and portrayer of the crucial events of his time, Grass now gives us a new book, neither fiction nor nonfiction, called simply "My Century." There are 100 short chapters, each devoted to a separate year, beginning with 1900 and ending with 1999.

What we hear are a variety of different narrators - male, female, old, young, and sometimes Grass himself - each telling a story that in some way captures the essence of the year in question.

Grass's focus is almost entirely on Germany. Readers unfamiliar with modern German politics, society, and culture may come across references they don't immediately recognize, but the problem is not insurmountable. For surely, understanding this past century must involve some knowledge of Germany, the country that, for good or ill, has shaped so much history.

The first chapter, "1900," is a German soldier's account of being part of the brutal, multinational force that put down the Boxer Rebellion, China's vain attempt to stop British traders from bringing opium into China. The early years of the century are marked by an enthusiasm for military might. The chapters dealing with 1914-1918 are narrated by a young Swiss woman who decades later has engineered a meeting between the author of the great German antiwar novel "All Quiet on the Western Front," Erich Maria Remarque, and his contemporary, Ernst Jnger, whose novel about that same devastating war celebrated soldiering as a kind of mystical experience. "You and your kind," Remarque tells him, "lacked the courage to admit defeat."

Voices of the 1920s include a flapper, an informer who tried to warn of the plot to kill Walter Rathenau, and a woman recalling the dreadful hyperinflation. In the 1930s, we hear about unemployment, scarcity, and compulsory labor: A man who was a child then remembers his mother saying, just before Hitler took power, "It can't get any worse."

"1938" recalls Kristallnacht. The years 1939 to 1945 are narrated by a skeptical war correspondent who doubts Hitler's promises. In "1946," we hear from a "Rubble Woman," one of the many unknown civilian women who helped clear away debris from the bombing.

The postwar years, including several featuring Grass himself as narrator, take in a range of topics: the Berlin Wall - and those who tunneled under it; the Eichmann trial - as seen by the Jewish glassmaker who fashioned the bullet-proof glass of the war criminal's isolation booth.

As the century wears on, an elderly man is roused to protest nuclear dumping when he can no longer gather his favorite wild mushrooms in the woods contaminated by fallout from Chernobyl.

Some of the stories capture a sense of immediacy and naivet as people relate experiences whose significance is not yet clear to them. Others are written with deliberate hindsight. Some are mildly comic; others are understatedly tragic. Irony is everywhere.

*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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