The Box by Günter Grass

theboxGünter Grass is a versatile artist, a colossal literary, cultural and political figure of Germany. He has been a recipient of several high prizes for his works, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. More than that, he has been the soul-searcher, the conscience-keeper and the moral anchor to German ethos since the demise of the Third Reich.

Grass stormed the literary scene in 1959 with his sensational work The Tin Drum, a novel set in Nazi Germany. The book is an allegorical rendition of the insidious and criminally myopic regime that pulverised Europe in the decades preceding the Second World War.  It was to be followed by Cat and Mouse and The Dog Years; the next two instalments of the Danzig trilogy.

Grass kicked up a vicious dust storm when he admitted in his semi-autobiographical work Peeling the Onion, published in 2006, that he was once a member of the heinous Waffen-SS, though for a brief period.  The Box is again a semi-autobiographical work, seemingly presented from the viewpoints of his eight children, the fruits of his marriages to three women.

“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. For a long time they resisted, but in the end they granted his wish. Now they are seated round a table and all begin to talk at once, all products of their father’s whimsy, using words he has put in their mouths, yet obstinate, too, determined not to spare his feelings despite their love for him.”

 The scene recurs across the nine chapters of the book. The fictional meetings of his sons and daughters project the thinly veiled guilt of the author for failing his children and wives, being consumed by literary and political obsessions. He kept retreating under the eaves to the company of his typewriter and alternately vanishing on his political missions even as the family went downhill ‘till there was nothing more to be done’. The details are unsavoury enough to be overlooked by mature subjects and it forces Grass to downscale the children, some of which are adults in their senior years now, to whimsical quasi-caricatures. “But what does it mean to be adults? Regression is permissible.” The act also puts Grass on his favourite pitch.

 Regressed and self-stunted characters are Grass’s forte. The conceit allows him to unleash characters who can sail through the sombre and the ominous on wings of sarcasm and dark humour. So his five sons and three daughters regress to their childhoods, remembering the quarrels and bickering, joys and sorrows, neglects and miseries.  Apart from the celebrity father, they keep reminiscing about Mariechen, the photographic chronicler of the family with her Agfa box camera.

 “The air quivers with things unspoken. Only gradually do the brothers and sister wend their way into the confused tangle of their childhood. Their speech regresses, sometimes animated, sometimes irritable. They insist that their feelings are still hurt.”

 However, none of the children admits to being victimized and damaged by their father’s fame. They remember how they moved to a spacious house after he succeeded with his book. They are apt to defend him for the days when he increasingly came to be attacked for his successive works. They detest the people who made him work through all that Nazi shit, “everything he knew about war, the things that terrified him…. Then, when the country was in ruins, how he had to clear rubble, and the growing hunger.”

 Grass has employed the character of Mariechen, his family friend, based on Maria Rama to whom the book is dedicated, to a remarkable effect. The brooding, quirky photographer is a common factor right through the bunch of wives and children.  Her camera is as omniscient as she is omnipresent in the family, snapping away at Grass’s behest or her own sweet will. The box has miraculous powers of digging up history and projecting the future. It can read desires and wishes and reprimand too. Countless prints from the camera crowd the author’s desk, kicking off memories and remonstrations, kindling insights and inspirations. Dark, decaying, shuttered up and war-ravaged apartments turn up with windows draped in white curtains in the final print, the sun streaming through on potted plants and birdcages with canaries. Putrefying kitchens turn up with sumptuous food. Children frolicking in bunkers by a riverside are metamorphosed into soldiers complete with helmets and gasmasks by Mariechen’s box. Children attempting at raucous music in a basement appear on stage a la Rolling Stones, fan mobs and all. The box becomes an ingenious tool to project the unfathomable devastation caused by the war, a mourning of gratuitous death and decay of a culture and its followers. It prophecies probable future of children with disturbing clarity. This prescient box with a few screws loose is nothing but the author’s own vision and at times a mirror to the society.

The Box is a clever work of an author and a political activist who charges and defends himself at the same time in his twilight years. The jury of ‘regressing’, snapping, biting and bantering bunch of children does take cognizance of Grass’s neglect of his family and his extra-marital liaisons but sets him free without strictures. Again, the jury not only brings up glimpses of Germany over a period of time and Grass’s disapproval of events like the coming up of The Wall, it upholds his views too. “I assume the media jackals wanted him to write about the past and not about the present.”  Their reproof is an atonement of sorts for his excesses. Their reminiscences are often proclamation of his emotions and at times, explanations of his stances. The central voice of The Box then, is that of Günter Grass himself who, unlike the hero of The Tin Drum, having taken a conscious decision to grow up, decides to put a few things in perspective.

The Box: Tales from the Darkroom
Author: Günter Grass
Translation: Krishna Winston
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 194


  1. I have not read Grass before. You are lucky as you get to read such wonderful versatile authors.194 pages is a slim volume but it seems to pack a lot of punch.

    1. You know what Alka, reading translated editions of classics originally written in French, German, Russian, Chinese et al, I feel like a wingless bird. How I wish I could learn those languages and read those works in original. But life is too short, made shorter still by an unforgiving work schedule. Fortunately, Krishna Winston has done a fabulous transcription of The Box. However, it would be best to initiate oneself in Grass by reading The Tin Drum.

  2. Due to my lack of literary knowledge, I would have never heard of authors like Günter Grass, I am glad I get to know now because of your awesome reviews. I had mentioned in my Blogoversary post about how I learned what great “writing” is after reading the blogs of few bloggers here, well one of the obvious reference was your blog. 🙂

  3. Never read GG.

    Well crafted insights into the man’s life, his persona and oeuvre. Reading your articles opens more windows into the world of literature and they also tell me how little I have read.

    Thank you for this piece.

    1. Grass is a powerful chronicler of his times. His unique vision and humour showcase and ridicule the most unpalatable of truths with unflinching vividness. As for littleness of efforts, this is what Issac Newton said, “I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” Do I need to say more?

  4. no one can write a book review like you. you put everything in it! even though i am happy as long as i see updates here but you deliver more than what is expected of a blog.

    1. Now that is just about the grandest compliment I got this year, or the year before, or the year prior to the year before, or the year that occurred earlier than prior to the year before! May God bless you, Deb!

  5. Another great review. You are indeed reading lots of serious litrature. This is an author I have at least heard of – I have heard of Tin Drum. Maybe some time I will get to these serious authors. I read Dyotovsky, Tolstoy and all for some time. But they are all good to read during the carefree days of college. I find myself needing something lighter now after the stres at office.

    1. That is so true, TF. Reading is best enjoyed in carefree days. I have fond memories of living in the worlds of Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, D H Lawrence, Tolstoy, Asimov et al. There are many books I’d like to read again. Sadly, the lightness of those days may never return and we must learn to squeeze in the reading amidst the pulls and pushes of life.

      I also love to read lighter stuff but I usually gravitate towards the knottier, heavier strains and travails of humanity.

  6. It is always good to know about new authors and there works through your wonderful lens, though only my ignorance makes them new. Thanks a lot for introducing one more literary stalwart. My wishlist is expanding.

    1. No one is an ignorant, Meenakshi. Everyone’s exposure is sufficient and fulfilling towards the prevailing perspective. One can always go ahead and explore newer vistas and sky is the limit. Wish you well with your wishlist. Thank you, too.

  7. I haven’t read any of Günter Grass’ works, but this somehow seems to be a little on the dark side for me. I must say you really read a wide range of books and that’s truly admirable.

  8. I am forced to repeat myself, Uma! You have this fabulous ability to recreate the mood of a book in your reviews. To be very honest, I enjoy reading these reviews of yours far more than I’d enjoy reading the book – considering my taste for light literature.

    1. Those are reassuring words, Suresh. It is an honour to receive such a compliment from you. That said, The Box is as light a book as they come!

  9. Thanks for this review. I have added a few of his books in my wishlist in Flipkart which now is longer than the list of Abhishek Bachchhan’s flops.

    1. I don’t know about Abhishek Bachchan but at the rate we are wishlisting books at Flipkart they would be soon requiring dedicated servers for the wish-carts alone!

  10. I’d urge you to go ahead with Grass. Do pick up Breon Mitchel’s translation of The Tin Drum. It is said to be closer to Grass’s sparkling German prose.

  11. Heard about Grass in the Kolkata Book Fair, this review will keep me interested in his works now. Good job Uma for telling us why we cannot miss him

  12. Wow.. u read writers from all across the globe.. Good to know about Grass and this one looks a great read.

  13. Günter Grass is one of my favourite authors, but I haven’t yet read The Box. An excellent review that makes me want to read the book.

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