Thursday, November 18, 2010

Review of Gunter Grass's latest novel: "The Box - Tales from the Darkroom"

I first learned of Gunter Grass when my high school English teacher, Mr. Henry, treated us to an assignment of reading "The Tin Drum.'

In his latest work of fiction, entitled "The Box - Tales from the Darkroon," Herr Grass reveals some of the secrets behind his personal creative process. Working in an experimental genre, he utilizes the just-barely-fictionalized voices of his eight children - borne to him by four different "strong women" - to explore memories of their childhood spent with a famous writer for a father and a magical box camera. The camera survived disasters that would have disabled lesser machines, and after many mishaps and falls, it is described as having a "screw loose" - enabling it to photograph both the past and the future. But the magic happens only when the Agfa box camera is wielded by the omnipresent Mariechen, companion and muse to the "fictional" father, Gunter.

In my reading of this book, the camera stands for Grass himself - looking at present reality, but seeing the past and the future possibilities which he describes in his writings. Like many of his other works, there is a surrealistic and phantasmagorical cast to the writing, somewhat reminiscent of Bulgakov's iconic "The Master and Margarita." The book feels overly self-indulgent and self-referential to me - citing many of Grass's prior works. He seems to be trying to exorcise demons of his past failings - as a husband and as a father - by forcing his children to air their grievances and memories into a microphone, and then taking the verbal images into the darkroom of his imagination to develop them into a fictionalized picture of family dysfunction.

Fans of Grass will not want to miss this latest work, since he seems to preparing to leave us. In that regard, this book seems to be a last testament. Those not yet familiar with the Grass oeuvre would be better served by banging through "The Tin Drum" to learn the rhythms of his writing and thought patterns.


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