With Crabwalk, a book that has enjoyed tremendous success in Germany, Günter Grass proves yet again that he is one of the most formidable figures in modern European literature, and anyone who believes that the glory days of The Tin Drum are behind him will find this remarkable novel quite as ambitious and penetrating as its great predecessor (even if, at 234 pages, it's considerably more concise than his earlier masterpiece). Political engagement has always been the force that motivates Grass's books, and the legacy of the past as it affects the present remains the fulcrum of all his work. Needless to say, like all great writers, his work is universal; you do not need to be German to appreciate such books as The Flounder and this new novel.
Here Grass tackles a subject that still causes unease among his countrymen: the problems of the German nation during World War Two. The central incident of the book is the sinking in 1945 (by a Soviet submarine) of the Willem Gustloff, a ship that had been converted into a refugee carrier. The loss of life in this sinking was immense, and this incident in the Baltic Sea remains the worst of all maritime disasters. The narrative is carried by Paul, a survivor of the sinking, who is now a journalist living in Berlin; his mother, Tulla, gave birth to him in a lifeboat on the doomed ship. As Paul attempts to place the disaster in the context of life in Germany today, his mother finds herself unable to shake off the crushing resonance of the incident. The generational theme is carried further by Paul's young son Konrad, who has been seduced by far-right elements in Germany which are attempting to rewrite history.
This is Grass at his considerable best: a powerful, significant theme is handled trenchantly, while the multi-generational problems of his characters are balanced against a lucid picture of the society in which they live. And despite the seriousness of his subject, Grass remains immensely readable. His books may be shorter these days, but their impact is no less forceful for that. --Barry Forshaw