Gunter Grass still a master at stirring up strife - and Israel
It is always delightful when octogenarians make world headlines. Whether it be Robert Mugabe fighting for his life in a Singapore hospital – aka "advising his daughter on her graduate studies" – or the Pope donning an even funnier hat than usual and lecturing the Castros in Cuba, it's refreshing to hear that in today's ageist culture, those in their ninth decade can still make a contribution.
Outstanding in this regard last week was Nobel Prize laureate and one-time Waffen SS member Gunter Grass. Proving that there's still lead in his literary pencil, the author of The Tin Drum managed to get himself declared persona non grata by Israel after penning a few tortured words on the subject of Middle Eastern relations and German profiteering.
The first thing to say about Herr Grass' poem is that it doesn't translate too well. When it comes to lyrical expression I'm no expert, but judging What Must Be Said against expectations of rhyme or rhythm, at least in English, suggests that Grass could stand a few lessons from Pam Ayres. It reads more like a dirgy political tract, short on poetic imagery, metaphor and beauty of any kind.
To suggest, as some have, that Grass should be stripped of his Nobel Prize because of his latest work's shortcomings smacks of overreaction. Those labouring under the mistaken belief that everything published by a laureate is literary gold should perhaps check out Hemingway's Across the River and Into the Trees. Those who feel didacticism is beneath prizewinners should attempt to read Steinbeck's The Pearl. Good luck on both counts. If Sir Doug Graham can keep a knighthood after leading sundry mum and dad investors down the garden path, Grass should certainly be able to get away with some substandard verse with gongs intact.
The political fallout from What Must Be Said, of course, outweighs whatever judgment is visited upon it by ivory tower arbiters of taste. Grass' prime critic has been Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been at pains to stress the poet's war record when discussing his work's "shameful moral equivalence".
Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai went further when announcing that the German would be henceforth barred from entering the country: "Grass' poems are an attempt to guide the fire of hate towards the State of Israel ... and to advance the ideas of which he was a public partner in the past, when he wore the uniform of the SS."
It is a peculiar thing to hold an 84-year-old man accountable for actions he was compelled to do as a teenager, particularly when there's no evidence that as a soldier Grass so much as fired a weapon. His Nazi agenda has been truly well hidden in the intervening seven decades, fully disguised in acclaimed, pacifist novels. So far as high-profile, former servicemen of the Third Reich go, I think one-time Hitler Youth Benedict XVI is the greater fascist. Certainly Grass has no beefs against the use of condoms, gay marriage, or stem cell research.
One of the strengths of What Must Be Said is that it anticipates its own controversy. Indeed, it is more interesting as a reflection on German guilt and post-war relations with Israel than it is as a commentary on Israeli-Iranian tensions. The fact that to in anyway criticise the Jewish state is to risk being labelled an anti-Semite, and that this fact inhibits debate on serious, potentially cataclysmic issues, has been proven by the Netanyahu Administration's disproportionately loud, abusive reaction. Rather than counter Grass' ideas with rational argument – or ignore them altogether, a far more politically sensible alternative – the Israeli Government's first response is to label its critic a Nazi. It's a ploy that Goebbels himself would stoop to: attacking the man to discredit the idea.
Grass' suggestion that Israel is poised to potentially annihilate Iran through a pre-emptive nuclear attack has more to do with poetic licence than political reality. It is understandable that it provoked a strong Jewish response, particularly given Iran's frequent announcements that it aspires to do the same to Israel. However, it is within the realms of possibility. If you combine the logic of the Six Day War with an awareness of the Israeli nuclear arsenal, it can be as readily conceived as the alternative: impartial, international governance of all weapons of mass destruction. Whatever Grass' clumsy style, the world is a richer place for having poets that can imagine both possibilities.
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