Günter Grass, the German novelist, social critic, poet, political activist, painter and Nobel Laureate, died this Monday in the northern German city of Lübeck that had been his home for decades. He was 87.
His longtime German Publisher, Gerhard Steidl, said that he drank his final Schnapps with Grass just eight days ago while they were working on his most recent book, which he described as a “literary experiment” fusing poetry with prose.
It is scheduled to be published in this summer.
“He was fully concentrated on his work until the last moment.” He said.
Intellectually and socially as active and alert as ever, in his last interview given to the leading Spanish newspaper ‘El Pais’, just before his death, Grass had this apprehension that the humanity was “sleepwalking” into a World War!
“We have on the one side Ukraine, whose situation is not improving, in Israel and Palestine things are getting worse, the disaster the Americans left in Iraq, the atrocities of Islamic state and the problem of Syria”… “There is war everywhere. We run the risk of committing the same mistakes as before. So without realising it we can get into a World War as if we were sleepwalking.”
The crucial interview, published on Tuesday, the next day of his death, was carried out at his home in Lübeck on March 21, last.
Lübeck: The Last Post
Lübeck in northern Germany, one of the major ports of Germany is on the river Trave. Because of its extensive Gothic architecture, the city is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The Baltic city of Lübeck is famous for its marzipan “bread” industry, Rotspon, the finest wine made from grapes processed and fermented in France and traditionally transported in wooden barrels to Lübeck, historical Churches, a medieval appearance with old buildings and narrow streets, the famous Christmas Fair, many small museums, including Lübeck Museum of Theatre Puppets, its famous residents, among whom there were writer Thomas Mann, writer Heinrich Mann, Günter Grass, painter Godfrey Kneller and politician Willy Brandt.
Günter Grass and his wife Ute have been living in Lübeck since 1986. The office of Grass was also located in the same building.
In the mid-1980s Grass and his wife Ute moved to the village of Behlendorf, to a remote farmhouse, about 15 miles south of Lübeck, where he was engaged in drawing and sculpture. It was not just a hobby. The sculptures were cast in bronze by a foundry in Munich and put on sale. He did engravings to be used as covers for some of his books.
Later they bought a place in the city of Lübeck
In 2002, the Günter Grass-House (Günter Grass-Haus) was opened at Lübeck’s Glockengießerstraße 21, on the occasion of his 75th birthday, as a permanent location for literature and visual arts. This place provides the ideal location for the presentation of his creative work within a museum set-up.
The main focus of the museum is the exploration and presentation of literature and visual arts, as they come together in the work of Günter Grass, who was not only a writer, but also a graphic artist, painter and sculptor. Despite being located in close vicinity to the name giver, the Günter Grass House is an independent museum. For interdisciplinary research the museum has access to a collection of more than 1,100 original drawings, lithographs, water colours and etchings as well as numerous manuscripts.
Here one can view a copy of the first typewritten page of Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum; 1959). The sketches on Calcutta and the original manuscripts, all retained here.There are also small bookshop at the premises. An ideal place to remember a great writer!
And don’t forget the wine house (Das Weinhaus) next door, which invites you to a culinary delight at the end of the visit in the Grass-Haus.
Grass surely knew that the literature always wants to make the sensual perceptible. And he was a great culinary artist himself.
Lübeck was also the home of Thomas Mann. His novel Buddenbrooks was set in 19th-century Lübeck. His childhood home next to the remarkable Marienkirche is also a museum.
The Kalkutta Konnection!
Grass came to Kolkata thrice — first in 1975 when he stayed at Raj Bhawan as a State guest and wrote parts of “Der Butt” (The Flounder). His first encounter with the city was short and quite passionate. He was surprised and dazed by the struggle, and abject poverty of the lower rung population in the city and wrote a surreal piece in his novel ‘The Flounder’, where his strong emotions wove a high-pitched, antithetical tapestry.
Later he and his wife came here for six months in 1986 after which he wrote ‘Zunge Zeigen’: ‘Show Your Tongue’.
And for the last time he came in 2005, with the company of his family members, including his daughter Nele Kruger and daughter-in-law Yvonne Grass.
During the fall and winter of 1986-87, Günter Grass and his wife, Ute, settled in Calcutta (Now Kolkata), invited by Max Mueller Bhavan (Goethe-Institut) in Kolkata. In commotion with the Bengali-language production of his 1966 play, ”The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising.”
Amitava Roy, the Professor of Drama at Kolkata’s ‘Rabindra Bharati University’, who also runs ‘Theatre Arts Workshop’, had translated ‘The Plebians’ and decided to stage it. Grass pleasantly agreed to be the co-Director of the play, sat diligently through the rehearsals and even commented on scenes , though he was not familiar with the language, Bengali!
His 1986 stay in the city ended up in his controversial writing ‘Zunge Zeigen’: ”Show Your Tongue” is his candid, even passionate response to the fabled and much maligned city. 97 pages of journals, a 12-stanza poem and 112 pages of expressionist drawings, all in one.
Grass revisited Kolkata in 1986 mainly because many had referred to his stay in the Raj Bhawan in 1975 to criticise his first book, arguing that Grass couldn’t have got a reliable view of the city by staying in the Governor’s Mansion.
“He thus wanted to live among the people and write another book on this city,” said renowned artist Shuvaprasanna, who met Grass for the first time on Grass’s second visit to this city.
“The Max Mueller Bhawan here hired a Country House (‘Bagan Bari’) for him at the outskirts of Kolkata, at Baruipur. He used to commute from there to Kolkata every day in overcrowded local trains. After a few months, he requested me to get him a place in the city. My wife’s house in Lake Town was empty and I put him up there. He would come down to my College Street residence every day for lunch,” Shuvaprasanna recalled.
After living in Baruipur for a few months, Grass moved to up market Lake Town but remained consistently critical of the class division prevailing in the city.
To the question if he could write a novel on Calcutta’s widespread contradiction, his reply was direct. He said: “I cannot write a novel on Calcutta… Calcutta is a city that demands its own Bengali James Joyce, Alfred Doblin and Dos Passos.”
Nevertheless, he stuck to the essential truth and mentioned in his long poem on Calcutta.
It was in a slum cluster near Calcutta’s biggest dumping ground ‘Dhapa’, he found little children practising their first writings in Bengali. So, he combined the spread of garbage and literacy and wrote a stunning stanza concentrating on the tragic pathos of Calcutta.
“In the present garbage already…
Crouched over slates, practizing Bengali letters.
The exercise, written over and over,
In translation: Life is beautiful.”
(‘Show Your Tongue’)
Metaphorically, Grass, making a comparison between Calcutta and Frankfurt, had stated unequivocally that the well-ordered basti (squatter’s) living room of Calcutta was more satisfying and true to life ,than the enormous building of the multinational Deutsche Bank in Europe’s commercial capital. He found hope, love, ardour, simplicity and the precious values of life in the basti home of a poor person, which spoke of greater ethics than the all-conquering sight of Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt!
Calcutta had already became a permanent icon in the Weltgeist (Worldspirit) of Gunter Grass and he told the journalists that the three cities which have governed his life’s outlook and emotions are Danzig where he was born and grew up, Berlin where he lived for a long time, and Calcutta.
In an interview in 2001 he said quite earnestly: “My Indian experience has left an indelible imprint on my creativity. Even when I am not writing directly about India or Calcutta, that experience continues to hover.”
A Multifarious Relationship
Mr. SV Raman, former Programme Director of Max Mueller Bhavan in Kolkata, served as Grass’s point man and interpreter in Kolkata, during his stay in 1986-87.
Recalling Grass’s trip to Kolkata’s renowned and artistically grandiose Durga Puja Pandals, Raman, who accompanied him, said Grass was “awe-struck and amazed” by the grandeur and the opulence on display. Even as he kept sketching on his pad, he couldn’t help mention that he was surprised by the vast contradiction between the grandeur on the one hand and the grime and the poverty of the slums on the other.
It was Raman who had found the Garden house (Bagan Bari) in Baruipur where Grass spent the first half of his stay in Kolkata.
“He wanted to reside outside the city limits. So, I searched for a suburban location and found this house. He didn’t want people to pry on him or barge into his house. So, the location suited him perfectly,” said Raman.
After years at Max Mueller Bhavan, Raman is now a programme consultant at ‘Victoria Memorial’ in Kolkata.
Günter Grass trusted Raman with the responsibility of building up rapport and setting appointments with Kolkata’s writers, poets and theatre personalities.
As an international personality and a big writer with huge fan following, Grass’s company was most sought after by intellectuals and writers alike. Too many journalists wanted to meet him and interview, but Grass was reluctant.
“I played a trick. Instead of making appointments formally,” said Raman, I started leaking out information about Grass to people I wanted him to meet”.
“I would mention to them that Grass would be at the Max Mueller Cafeteria in the morning, slightly dropping a hint that one could go and meet him there. This is how I got people like Sunil Gangopadhyay, Daud Haider and Goutam Ghose to meet Grass, without annoying others. He shared a warm relationship with each of them that lasted till he died,” remembered Raman.
“He used to tell me that as a creative person I cannot limit myself in an ivory tower and be ignorant of all that’s happening around me. My works have to reflect the realities,” said painter Shuvaprasanna, who first met Grass in 1986 and has been a friend ever since. Award winning Filmmaker Gautam Ghose, whose film ‘Shuva & I’, is on the relation between two creative souls, Grass and Shuvaprasanna, filmed it at Grass’ home in Germany in August 2013. Ghose first met Grass at the Venice Film Festival in 1984 where his film, ‘Paar’, received an award and Grass was on the Jury.
Ghose says that Grass’ depiction of Kolkata is quite understandable. “If one looks at Kolkata through the eyes of a westerner, one can understand why such a visitor would feel appalled by the poverty and destitution in the city. I spoke to him many times about his depiction of Kolkata in his two novels. Grass viewed Kolkata as a city of contradictions, a city that was both lovely and dirty. He used to be both exhilarated and upset by this city.” said Ghose.
During his visit to Calcutta in 2005 Günter Grass did not intend to indulge in any trip to the past, or into controversies. “I’m very happy to be back. Kolkata has its own characteristic identity. There are so many indigenous arts here that it fills my heart with pride”. He said. Martin Kaempchen, Grass’s biographer and a Kolkata aficionado had said, “This visit is of immense importance to him. He wants to see the city with his own eyes and make note of the changes that have come over.”
Christof Siemes wrote in the German Weekly “Die Zeit”, how Grass was equally averse to Mother Teresa cult of destitute service that was grown larger than life, in the vicinity of Kalghat’s Kali Temple and found it somehow publicly hungry, tokenist and pretentious!
“I shall come back”, Grass had already said in 1987, shortly before his departure, “Calcutta continues to be a devastating city, a fascinating city. It has given me something. And I would like to give something back to it”.
In January 1999, Kalyani Karlekar, the 89-year-old Calcutta-based social worker who ran the Calcutta Social Project (CSP), an NGO, looking after the upkeep and welfare of the slum children for the past 27 years, received a letter from Berlin. A cheque was enclosed with a cryptic note from Gunter Grass.
The Calcutta Social Project run by retired teachers couple the Karlekars had impressed Grass so much that together with friends, Grass had every year since sent about 7,000 Euros to the project. Grass had already dedicated his book “Show Your Tongue” to Kalyani Karlekar, G V Karlekar and CSP.
Netai Bera, who has been with CSP since 1984, said, “Though he was involved, he couldn’t generate funds individually. So he set up the ‘Hilfe fur Slum Schulen’ program in Germany to raise funds, which would sponsor the children’s tiffin, school uniforms and study materials. The royalty from his book ‘Show your Tongue’ was directed to the children’s welfare.” He kept on sending money regularly and silently, without making a fuss about it.
The Gut Feeling!
The idea of the title of Grass’ second book on Kolkata (‘Show Your Tongue’) was born while he was experiencing a night-long Kali Puja at Shuvaprasanna’s in-laws place, in the winter of 1986.
“He asked me why the Goddess had her tongue out and I explained to him it was because she was ashamed of having stepped on her consort. He named his book thus because he wanted Kolkatans to be ashamed of the conditions in the city,” explained the celebrated painter.
Actually Grass’s harsh comment on the city was not for itself, or its poor people, whom he praised on several instances for their toilsome, squalid yet orderly and optimistic lives. It was the abject indifference and apathy of the so-called intellectuals, the so-called creative people and the politicians in general, about the reality and the stern hypocrisy of this class.
It was that irresolvable internal contradiction of the city, that had agonized Grass, and this emotion was blatantly expressed in a much poignant manner which emphasized the antimony, the big paradox named Calcutta!
“How, where garbage and only garbage grows,
Am I to speak of Ilsebill because she is beautiful,
And speak of beauty”?
(Ilsebill is the main female character in Grimm Brothers; fairy tale: ‘Vom Fischer und seiner Frau’ (The Fisherman and His Wife). Günter Grass’s 1977 novel, “Der Butt” (The Flounder), is loosely based on the fairy tale.)
In an interview with Subhoranjan Dasgupta, Grass had explained it further:
“You know, during my very first visit to India, I saw an atomic research institute standing very close to a very big slum. At that moment, I realised the essential contradiction. On the one hand, you have such compelling problems of sheer existence which have not been solved (indeed, they are multiplying everyday) and on the other, you are spending millions on a kind of research which is not in a position to tackle these curses. This severe imbalance in perception has led to India’s emerging as a nuclear power while its millions still go hungry to bed”.
In the obituary, many commentators and writers stressed Grass’s narrative skills, his Magic Realism etc..
But Hans Christoph Buch, a German novelist and a popular r contributor to popular German weekly ‘Die Zeit’, has written : “He’s not a great thinker like Sartre. He’s not a brilliant essayist or intellectual like Hans Magnus Enzensberger. He’s a story-teller who writes from the gut.”
The intellectual hypocrisy is mostly abhorred by Grass. In another interview, few years back, Grass wondered whether Britain should not confront its own past more honestly. “I sometimes wonder how young people grow up in Britain and know little about the long history of crimes during the colonial period. In England it’s a completely taboo subject!”
To the interviewers of Goethe institute magazine, he said candidly that it was no ill feeling about the city of Kolkata, but the contradiction and indifference of the privileged class that hurt him most :
“When I went to Kolkata and was confronted by the slums and the misery, but at the same time with the high Bengali culture and vibrant life, I initially was unable to write. Instead I drew and wandered about with my sketchbook. The drawing led me to a diary-like form of writing that then led to a longer Kolkata poem. These three elements – diary notes, the poem and the drawings – made up the book “Show Your Tongue”.
“When it was published they said in Germany that it did not contain enough about the city’s vibrant culture. My attention was mainly on the lower social conditions. It was also received controversially in India. Many Indians said, “Do we always have to look at this? Aren’t there more beautiful things in India that could be placed in the foreground?” But since I am used to controversial reception of my books, I would have been mistrustful if the book had met with approval everywhere.”
When poet Allen Ginsberg came to Calcutta in the summer of ’62, he spent hours at the iconic Coffee House discussing poetry with author and the poet Sunil Gangopadhyay, and the maverick poet Shakti Chattopadhyay. But Grass had an avid aversion to such intellectual ponderings.
Grass’s grouch against India’s elite is that it doesn’t care or do enough for the impoverished majority. That is why he prefers to spend time with the poor, to sketch and to fill up his diary, rather than fraternize with glamourphiles or visit monuments.
In his last visit to Kolkata, Grass wanted to visit a slum. After some reluctance a Goethe-Institut Staffer accompanied him as a guide and translator. Almost curious as a young reporter Grass asked a slum dweller, which a German publication had quoted this way: “Woher kommen Sie?«, fragt er eine Frau, die sich hinter ihrem bunten Tuch versteckt. »Aus Bihar.« – »Warum ausgerechnet Kolkata?« – »Der freundlichen Menschen wegen.”
(“Where are you from?” He asks a woman hiding behind her colourful cloth. “From Bihar .” – ” Why exactly Kolkata?” . “Because of the friendly people.”)
So, despite all the criticism and cynicism , Kolkata, the city itself is not heartless.
And Grass knew it by his heart!
“Why do you think I wrote all this about the hell that is Calcutta? I wrote it because I really care about Calcutta. I really love this city that is as much mine as yours.” Grass confessed.
By: Deep Basu