Magical moments

Published : Feb 11, 2011 00:00 IST

The Box' throws up enough evidence of Gunter Grass' skill in depicting a world of magic realism, one born out of his explosive imagination.

GUNTER GRASS' recent novel The Box begins with the sentence: Once upon a time there was a father, who, having grown old in years, called together his sons and daughters four, five, six, eight in all. But the father's own voice is missing; instead the narrative is a dictated memoir in the voice of his children who remain alert throughout to the presence of microphones they speak into and know very well that their father will finally control and edit all their thoughts and words. Grass explains: It's autobiographical writing, but in the way I can do it telling stories, he said. The first one, Peeling the Onion, was about my youth when I was an unknown author, then it finished with the year 1959 when The Tin Drum came out. Now I start with the year 1960. I didn't like to write about my own writing, but I was interested in how my children I have many children, eight children how they saw their father with his typewriter, an old-fashioned typewriter. When they asked questions I would give an answer, but my head was still going on with what was in my head. From this point of view I've collected all my children, and they are speaking about that time in connection with me.

The chapters come together in the figure of Mariechen, who is the real hero' wielding her Agfa box' with all its magical endowments of looking back and forward into time and for bringing a semblance of a dialogue between the father and his children. A friend and a muse, it is Mariechen to whom the novel is dedicated (Maria Rama is her real name). But is she more than a muse to Grass? Asked by one of his children, Grass replies: This particular variant of love, which exists alongside others and doesn't depend on sex, apparently turns out to be more durable.

A child, during the course of the narrative, remembers his father saying: Of all the women I've loved, or still love, Mariechen is the only one who doesn't demand even a smidgen of me, but gives everything.

At the end, Grass gives his lenswoman an abode in heaven. It is indeed Mariechen who is solely responsible for revealing the human aspect of Grass' character, both kind-hearted and reachable.

My box, declares Mariechen, is like the good lord; it sees all that was, that is, and that will be. You can't pull the wool over its eyes. Grass is dexterous enough to employ a magical object to link diverse characters or situations as in his famous work The Tin Drum where he uses the broken drum that the childish hero, Oskar, carries with him from Danzig in the 1920s to Dsseldorf in the 1950s. In The Box, an ordinary camera skilfully and magically becomes a metaphor of the artist's technique of transforming the imaginary into the real and vice versa.

Whenever Marie snaps a picture of something, it emerges out of her darkroom looking altogether different. This apparently hints at the fictional potential of writing to transform ugly reality into something utterly unusual. There is a magical insinuation underlying the box' , which is simply a child's camera with the creative freedom so necessary to move beyond the commonplace. The writer, like Grass, is adept at out of the box' ingenuity that is the hallmark of magic realism. The children wonder: That is what he is allowed to do, what he does best: dream up things, imagine things, until they become real and cast a shadow.

The children use the camera's disturbing depictions to put together a portrait of their ever indefinable and hard-to-pin-down father. Though they do create his external self, the father will not allow them to have a peep into his inner persona: Not a word about guilt and other unwelcome deliveries. Interestingly, Grass will be at pains to keep up to this claim during the course of his narrative. An occasional comment from the writer is of course there with his refreshing method to zoom all the way out, taking an interest not in what people think which has been stated again and again in unambiguous terms so much as why they think it. Working its way back to his eight children, his book offers both history and historiography, autobiography and fiction.

Grass does not agree with the notion of Vergangenheitsbewltigung, a term that signifies coming to grips with one's past; this, he feels, is an impossibility, a burden of history that as a residue from the past underpins all our responses to the emergent present and the future.

Grass subverts the role of the omniscient author by withdrawing himself from the narrative, but only to an extent. The autobiographical element takes the back seat, giving a free play to the children to record their impressions and criticism of him on his 80th birthday. Though he skilfully manages to distance himself from his monumental public image as a political campaigner and writer of contested fiction, there are occasional references to his past.

But to many, the book is a disappointment as it says very little about his life or the works such as Dog Years, Local Anaesthetic, The Flounder, The Meeting at Telgte, Headbirths and The Rat, written in the time span covered by The Box. Passing remarks about them are all that the reader gets: Their love suffered more and more, and so one day my papa took off, with his unfinished manuscript [ The Flounder] under his arm. He was simply gone, and unfortunately never found his way back to us. Or the reference to another of his novels: Determined to finish that book of his, the one with the rat and the four women in the boat and all.

We see him researching locations for Telgte, or being given a rat as a Christmas present. His support for Willy Brandt has no political comment of value except the innocuous remark: Father kept editing speeches for Brandt, to make him a stronger candidate. Though there is mention of his being drafted in the Waffen SS for which his past stands blemished, there is no assessment of his ethics or an explanation of his dark alliance with the Nazi regime.

The public Grass is therefore presented very insubstantially whereas the private self is discernible in the complaints that the children have against him: He never really played with us, says one child, or another groans, all that counts for our father is what can be recounted. Disappointments, jealousies and feelings emerge during the course of the narration, throwing a deep insight into the man and not the political activist, a structural as well as a thematic inadequacy.

Grass is conscious of the hurt caused by literary critics in their acerbic criticism of his works and does not forget to mention it at one place in the novel. He regrets the loss of inspiration and confidence that he had in his use of language while composing The Tin Drum in his early creative period unlike the loss of spontaneous flow of words and thoughts that he experiences at present: In those days, all he had to do was whistle and the words came rushing... an inexhaustible wellspring... the background swarming with activity and the foreground filled with larger-than-life characters.

Nevertheless, in this absorbing memoir, Grass has redefined the subject and mystery of art by showing one dimension of life through the reminiscences of his children and another through the magical box that throws up endless varieties of likely experience. Having dissected himself, he only wishes for the end: Now the father is shrinking, wants to vanish into thin air.

The Box thus throws up enough evidence of Grass' artistic skill in depicting a world of magic realism, a world born out of his still very explosive imagination. However, as he is here dealing with real children as his characters, there might be some dilution of his artistic abilities. A child says: It's possible even we, sitting here and talking, are just figments of his imagination what do you think? The question is left unanswered and throws a shadow over the confidence that Grass might have in playing with his fictional tricks in the novel. Does he succeed in achieving his ends? It is for the reader to decide.

Grass, I feel, may not be too sure in such circumstances of his skill at creating the real magical box that his fiction has always endeavoured to be. The real children remain a hindrance to the figments of his imagination' that are central to his creative art.

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