GŸnter Grass, on receiving the news that he had been awarded the 1999 Nobel Prize of Literature and on being asked how he was going to celebrate the big event, answered humbly that he had a dentist's appointment that day and was planning on keeping it. The reader encounters that same spirit in My Century. We do not hear fanfare and stories of epic proportion, but rather the humble narratives of many, all giving their take on the events big and small of the century. Grass gives us 100 stories, one for each year, and in most cases a different voice to tell that story. Grass's narrators chat about the 1954 soccer world championship and the Berlin Love Parade. In 1947, they grumble about the lack of food and coal, in 1993, about the influx of asylum seekers into Germany. They describe eloquently the miraculous effects of the new currency introduced to West Germany in 1948, and the much-awaited arrival of real money in East Germany after the fall of the Wall. Grass's Germans recall advances in technology: the first trans-Atlantic flight of the blimp, listening to their first radio show, the building of the Autobahn, their thoughts on first hearing about Dolly the cloned sheep. But Grass's Germans do not remember much of German history between 1933 and 1945, and their eagerness to speak about celebrating the first Cologne carnival after WWII contrasts starkly with their silence regarding National Socialism and the Holocaust. Grass is not afraid to include these silences and to let memory and recognition bubble up only in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, slowly cracking the veneer of denial and normalcy that was endemic to a miraculously prosperous post-war Germany. Many of Grass's stories are quite comical, and his humor is most poignant when he describes the political absurdities caused by German-German division.
ÊGrass's magnitude as a writer lies in the way he combines an acute historical and political consciousness with great poetic sensitivity, and this ability of his is abundantly displayed in his latest work. My Century is a great book that stirs the senses, challenges the intellect, and reminds the reader that personal and political history are inextricably interwoven.
Katharina Altpeter-Jones is a Ph.
D. student in the German Studies Program at Duke University.