A review of Crabwalk by Gunter Grass

Crabwalk is a complex and difficult novel which challenges the reader to think about history, about perspective, and narrative truth, but keeps the reader at arms length. The story is narrated by Paul Pokriefke, a 50 year old survivor of the Gustloff sinking, born prematurely on the same day as the ship was sunk.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

By Gunter Grass (trans. Krishna Winston)
Faber & Faber, 234pp $28

On January 30, 1945, a soviet submarine sunk the Wilhelm Gustloff, a 25,000-ton passenger liner, used before the war by as a propaganda cruise ship for the “Strength through Joy” (KDF) organisation to take German factory workers on low-cost vacation excursions. At the end of WWII the Gustloff was converted to a refugee ship and left the Baltic harbor of Gydnia with almost 8,000 women, children and wounded soldiers. 376 women were in an empty swimming pool that served as a temporary dormatory. Over 6,000 people, possibly many more, drowned in the icy Baltic sea, creating the worst maritime disaster in history, dwarfing the much better known Titanic disaster of 1912 where 1,523 lives were lost. A quick search on the Internet shows that debate around the lack of general knowledge about this disaster, as well as other soviet atrocities against the Germans at the end of WW2 is very topical. The sinking of the Gustloff is the pivotal event at the heart of Gunter Grass’s latest novel Crabwalk.

Crabwalk is a complex and difficult novel which challenges the reader to think about history, about perspective, and narrative truth, but keeps the reader at arms length. The story is narrated by Paul Pokriefke, a 50 year old survivor of the Gustloff sinking, born prematurely on the same day as the ship was sunk: “At the exact minute when theYustloff went under” (154). Pokriefke is a divorced journalist with a son he hardly speaks to, and a nagging mother whose desperation to get her son to write the story of the ship’s sinking correlates with her continual sense of disappointment in her son. Despite his attempts at ignoring his mother’s wishes for a memoir, Pokriefke has been hired as a kind of ghostwriter by an unnamed old writer who has collected material on the disaster and has found himself unable to produce the book himself. To a certain extent, the old writer is a fictionalised Grass, whose “tome Dog Years” is a direct reference to Grass’ own novel of the same name. There is also Pokriefke’s more or less estranged son Konnie, who has begun a chat-room dialogue in the guise of Wilhelm Gustloff, the Nazi namesake of the ship, with a similarly guised David Frankfurter, Gustloff’s Jewish assasinator, and who crabwalks towards his own tragedy.

The title refers to the tricky narrative, which moves almost imperceptibly between a current revision of history taking place on the Internet, Pokriefke’s mother’s current reminiscences and those he remembers hearing repeatedly while growing up, and bits of information which Pokriefke’s research uncovers. There are many times when it is difficult to know whose voice, or memory we are following. Even the “old man” has Pokriefke’s mother Tulla behind him: “but he’s not the one forcing me to do this, it’s Mother. And it’s only because of her that the old man is poking his nose in; she’s forcing him to force me, as if all this could be written only under duress, as if nothing culd get down on paper without Mother.” (104)

The chatroom dialogue takes place, again without markers or pause, between the memories, and the reinactment:

Spread by way of the Internet and downloaded by who knows how many users, these sentences and the captions to the accompanying illustrations could be read as if they applied to current events (106)

We move in and out of the past, the “everlasting” ship’s sinking, the memories, a Service of Remembrance for survivors and the online dialogue:

On the Web site, my son, bristling with naval expertise, voiced the opinion that the U-boat designed in Holland was a prime example of “German Engineering.” That may be true. But for the time being, Marinesko managed to sink an oceangoing tugboat called the Sigfried along the coast of Pomerania only by dint of using artillery fire. (91)

There is another story taking place as well, and this is Pokriefke’s personal family tragedy. He is bitter – angry at his mother, his nonexistent father, his son, whom he knows he has failed, his ex-wife who seems uninterested in his life. He is angry that he is ignored at the Service of Remembrance, and bewildered by both his mother and son. Pokriefke’s non-historical domestic life underlines his son’s personal tragedy. The metaphorical search for a father figure is a minor psychological undercurrent, but perhaps one which hints at some of the underpinnings of Nazism, hatred, the need for a sense of belonging, and his son’s motivation. Unfortunately, and this is where the novel fails somewhat, the characters are too wooden and unlikeable to allow the reader to engage. Konnie is singularly distasteful, even though at times it is possible to feel sorry for the solitary boy. Pokriefke is also unlikeable with his continual resentment and whining and refusal to take responsibility for his life. Tulla, who is more well developed than the other characters, and has been brought back from Grass’ 1963 novel Dog Years , is still unlikeable with her anti-semitism and her lack of maternal kindness, at least as we see her through Pokriefke’s eyes. The lack of depth is deliberate:

The do not enter sign he posted at the very beginning. He strictly enjoined me from speculating about Konny’s thoughts, from creating scenarios based on what he might be thinking perhaps even writing down what might be going on in his head and presenting as suitable for quoting.(215)

However deliberate, it still alienates the reader from the characters. Despite this, there is still much in this work that is beautiful – showing Grass’ keen poetic voice, and the translation captures this well:

She missed everything taking place outside that bunk bed. She saw neither the festive illumination of the capsizing ship as it went under nor the tangled bunches of people plummeting from the stern, the last part to remain above water. But as Mother claims to remember, my first cry drowned out that other cry, blended from thousands of voices and carrying far and wide over the water, that final cry that came from everywhere: from the interior of the collapsing ship, from the bursting promenade deck, from the flooded sundeck, from the rapidly vanishing stern, and rising from the turbulent surface of the water, where thousands swirled, dead or alive, in their life jackets.(155)

The image of the collective cry of the drowning thousands merges with the singular cry of Pokriefke’s birth, a moment of climax which precedes the opening of the novel and yet motivates the narrative. The impact of the tragedy is powerful enough to carry the story. The narrative structure also works well, and although this is neither an easy read, nor one in which the reader will identify or even care about the characters, it is worth some trouble to get through the twisting complexities of this story. The notions of individual and collective guilt and grief, and its corollary in hatred and fear are clearly and powerfully conveyed. For more information visit: Crabwalk