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It’s a curious fact that the reputation of many contemporary novelists of popular distinction rests on a single book. Think, for example, of Umberto Eco. Had he not written The Name of the Rose, he would be better known today as an essayist and semiotician who had also published some interesting if not particularly memorable fiction. (The one exception to the rule might be Foucault’s Pendulum.) This is even truer of Norwegian antisemite, Jostein Gaarder, whose Sophie’s World catapulted him to international acclaim. The works that followed might best be portrayed as competent-to-forgettable. Ditto the anti-Zionist Louis De Bernière whose Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was his one resonant success, and Portuguese antisemite and Nobel Laureate José Saramago, whose only readable book was The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.
As for Germany’s most famous living novelist, Günter Grass pretty well consorts with the paradigm, The Tin Drum having established him as a major literary and political voice of the twentieth century. Admittedly, subsequent books like Dog Years and The Flounder were notable achievements. But absent the beating of The Tin Drum, the callithumpian parade of Grass’ works in the public arena would have been far less spectacular. He cannot be dismissed as a one-shot Johnny, but his oeuvre arguably does not justify his inflated réclame. Indeed, for some time now, he has been living off the interest from the capital he invested in his heyday. Sadly, Grass lost it long ago.
This has not prevented him from generating considerable controversy with the publication in the German daily Süddeutschen Zeitung of an anti-Israeli poem titled What Must Be Said (Was gesagt werden muss). As Sebastian Hammelehle informs us in Der Spiegal Online, the German expression “what must be said” connotes the conversational cliché “There’s no law against saying that…”, which would appear to carry the same smarmy patina in our culture as “Some of my best friends are Jews.” Thus Grass does not hesitate to assert in the poem that Israel is a country “to which I am bound.” The lie is so palpable as to be embarrassing.
Similarly, Frank Schirrmacher, an editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, points out that Grass’ use of the word Überlebende (survivor) “to describe his situation and the plight of Germans in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran,” is disingenuous. “Traditionally, the word “survivor” is associated—in a German-language context—with Jewish survivors of the Shoah.” Schirrmacher believes that Grass, who in his youth was a member of the Nazi Waffen SS, is engaged in a duplicitous attempt to “make peace with his own biography.”
It must be said that, whatever his motives and talents may be, Grass is obviously not a poet and What Must Be Said is demonstrably not a poem. The language of the piece is scarcely even workmanlike, fishtailing between the unctuously pulpiteering and the colorlessly prosaic. There is nothing about this dismal effort that says “I have to be a poem.” Had it been written as a short prose essay with a heavily propagandistic slant, there would have been no detectable difference. The thing has no literary merit whatsoever; to put it bluntly, it is an execrable piece of fustian.
The same must be said of the sentiment the “poem” expresses, which, as Hammelehle puts it, constitutes a “lyrical first strike” against the Jewish state. Except that there is nothing lyrical about a flat and pompous verbal eructation riddled with lies, false assumptions, evasions and catarrhal flecks of disinformation.
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