TULI POKRIEFKE NOW approaching seventy, whom Grass’s readers will remember as the spindly adolescent hm Cat and Mouse and Dog Years, cannot forget the cries of the four thousand rehgee children who drowned in the Baltic on an icy January night in 1945. The Wilhelm Gustloff the pride of the ‘Strength through Joy’ organisation’s prewar fleet, was supposed to be ferrying them to safety but was sunk by three well-aimed Soviet torpedoes. Up to ten thousand lives were lost – manv times more than on the Titanic. The great majority of he victims were civilians fleeing hm the advancing Red Army, which was set to avenge atrocities committed bv the Wehrmacht in Mother Russia. Children stood the leak chance of surviving; their bodies bobbed in the sea, feet upwards.
Tulla’s son Paul, miraculously born that very night after his mother had been saved, cannot bear to listen to her tell the Gustloff story one more time, and so he abandons her in Mecklenburg for a new life in West Berlin shortly before the Wd goes up. But after years of her nagging, and when he can refuse his writing teacher no longer, he begins to edge, crab-like, in the direction of the morass of contradictory facts surroundmg the ship whose end has overshadowed his life from the moment it began. An unsuccess~fr eelance hack and inadequate father, who has worked for both the alternative tageszeitung and the rightwing Springer press, Paul quickly finds he is not alone in wanting to give an account of Germany’s – if not the world’s – greatest maritime disaster. Unknown enthusiasts on the Internet are chattering about the same material. They all agree that the story actually begins in 1936 with the murder in Davos, Switzerland, of a Nazi official – Wilhelm Gustloff himself – by a lone Jewish resistance fighter. When ‘Strength through Joy’ launched its first classless ocean-going cruise liner the following year, it commemorated the Nazis’ new martyr by naming the ship after him. It was originally going to be called the Adov Hitler. Until the war came the Wilhelm Gustlof would indeed seem to have given joy to all who sailed in her. Tulla’s own parents, who drowned that night in 1945, were always gratefil for their once-in-a-lifetime voyage to the fjords in the month before war broke out.
Paul discovers there are lots of stories whlch have to be told. including that of Gustloff’s assassin. a Serbian medical studenr who spent a decade in a swiss jail, and 1, that of the submarine commander responsible for stalking and holing the refugee ship, who for lesser and unrelated crimes endured a decade in an East Siberian labour camp, only to be made a ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ in the last days of Gorbachev. Paul knows that manv of rhese tales have alreadv found their tellers but his composite version has to take account of all of them if he is to strike the balance for which he strives. He knows, too, what all Grass’s narrators have always known – that the narrative of history is always contested. There have, after all. been other books, and even one film. For nationalists, expellees, revanchists, and even the grandch~ldreno f the refigees (as Paul is pained to dscover), the Gustloff has alwavs been a cause cCl2bre. Grass himself & has kept it on the margins of his fiction up to now, mentioning it in passing in The Tin Drum (1959), and giving only a handfd more details in The Rat (1986).
On the publication of this novel in Germany last year, Grass knocked J K Rowling off the number one spot in the bestseller lists. Crabwalk even featured on the hnt vage of Der Spiegel, a tribute to his continued ability to stimhGe public debate, this time on atrocities committed not by, but against the Germans in the Second World War. Krishna Winston’s highly readable translation (the occasional flat sentences have, sadly, the same flatness in the original) should find Grass new readers in the English-speaking world. Older ones who rnav have abandoned him recent years ought to be tempted back: there is no doubting that he is returning to his roots by resurrecting characters from his fiction of forty years ago. Whether Crabwalk will lead old or new readers to revise their views of the Germans’ grisly wartime experience is another matter.
Gunter Grass, the refugee boy from Danzig, West Prussia, has mourned his lost homeland in all his writing, while insisting that the Abed victory and the loss of those eastern provinces to Poland and Russia were right and .,i ust. Sudetenland extremists set fire to hs house in 1965 because of hs insistence on expressing that anti-patriotic view, which is all but universal in contemporary Germany. Poles today have no more serious concerns about Germans than that they are buying up holiday homes in the Masurian Lakes. And so at last those Gustlof victims and the hundreds of thousands of others who perished no less miserably on overland routes to the West in the same winter have been fittingly remembered.