Most years, the announcement of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature is greeted with surprise. Wislawa who? A Japanese novelist called what? The only surprise about the 1999 award was that Gunter Grass hadn’t won it already. Some imagined he had – perhaps thinking of his compatriot Heinrich Böll (1972) or his magical-realist confrere Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1982). Certainly, between The Tin Drum (1959) and The Flounder (1977), Grass did more than enough to merit the prize. The mills of the Swedish Academy grind slowly. Still, in the end, at seventy-two, Grass was ‘enNobeled’. And rightly so.
It is a pity his new book doesn’t show him at his best. The idea for it was a good one: a story for every year of the last century, each narrated in a different voice. War, politics, dictatorship, dissidence, migration – Grass has always been drawn to big subjects,