Slow, slow, slow-slow slow

From the Diary of a Snail

When Hermann Ott, nicknamed Doubt by his contemporaries, began teaching Jews and collecting snails during the prelude to the second World War, he probably didn't intend to become a champion for the underdogs. Doubt would never have made such a definite political statement, children; Doubt moves slowly, like his snails. He works hard, not with the ethic of the Protestant nor the gloom of the martyr to the economy, but with the manner of one shoring up sandbags against time. He sees the plaintive, whirling dervishes of here-and-now revolution, frowns and slows down: not just to watch, but to check his own speed.

Grass aligned himself---probably still does---with Doubt in his partly fictional account of his own campaign trail during the 1969 election. The word "trail" develops many meanings as, in Grass' memoir, the snails that Doubt collects become the symbol of Social Democratic policy, and slowness the responsibility and duty of the intellectual in politics. Grass and Doubt follow their separate, dogged routes some thirty years apart, meeting on, say, a windswept beach so that Grass can air his grievances: not with the world, but with his own over-eagerness. Doubt is always there at Grass' right hand, holding him back with history's lesson, that to rush headlong is to eventually perish.

In this translated work, much of Grass' original project is evident. Narratives are rich and intertwine in a complicated montage that echoes Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz. Presumably it has been just as difficult to translate, as a lot of the effect is lost. Some of Grass' semi-spontaneous poetry is absolutely appalling in the English, ranging from mawkish to sesquipedalian with no redeeming qualities in between. The fact that Grass is on one level writing to answer the questions of his own sons and daughters is hammered home each and every time he calls the reader "children" (which is probably Grass' own error). But his grasp of atmosphere and storytelling survives Grass' occasional patronising and Ralph Manheim's pedestrian translation. By detecting in advance whether the next section has odd line lengths it's easy to anticipate most of the dross and skip over to the next cleverly-crafted chunk of prose.

At a time when German politics is moving once again back towards the right-wing CDU and tubthumping---tired of the slow, careful movements of the pragmatic socialist Schnecken that have formed previous coalitions---Grass' novel-cum-memoir is an illuminating read: not so much of the current political climate, which has of course changed dramatically since then, but of the collective German psyche in the 20th Century. After leaping at one political movement and being stung to their psychic core, it somehow takes all of the German people's collective restraint not to leap at another. Ultimately, Grass asks us again and again the question: why must we always learn from the hare, the big cats, the hunters and the gods of myth and legend... but never from the snail?