German novelist and Nobel Prize (1999) winner, Gunter Grass, died in a hospital in Germany’s city Lübeck on 13 April. Among other things, Grass was a bookmaker and book designer.
Dr Martin Wälde, director of Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan Mumbai pays homage to the literary legend.
For the Goethe-Institut, no other literary personality from Germany has played a pivotal role in the intercultural exchange as Günter Grass – recalcitrant and dialectical. Be it: his prose and lyrics, or his sketches, Grass made an impact in many countries. Each time he was invited, he commanded a full house and a lot of attention.
I invited Günter Grass to three important events.
In 2000 I invited him to Vilnius, it was a summit meeting of four Nobel laureates. Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska, and Tomas Venclova, along with Günter Grass. Vilnius in Lithuania is a town of historical significance. The discussion focused on the “Future of Remembrances” and Grass rendered a brilliant lecture on “I remember”. For the first time he put emphasis on the collective destiny of the displaced people of the Second World War. This talk later formed a part of his book “Crabwalk”.
The “East” has always played an important role for Grass, not only his hometown Danzig, where his 80th birthday was celebrated in a grand manner in 2007. The Goethe-Institut Warsaw invited him to a panel discussion with other eminent panelists Lech Walesa and Richard von Weizsäcker. This conversation was of immense importance, since a year ago, Grass had publicly admitted in his autobiography that he was a member of the Waffen-SS during World War II. Inevitably, this had provoked rage in the international press.
Grass, the “moral conscience” of Germany, the aggressive, militant poet and an agitator, had kept his membership of SS under wraps for decades. Walesa even demanded a revocation of his honorary citizenship bestowed upon him by the city of Danzig. The meeting in Danzig was a kind of appeasement of Grass. No other German intellectual was so committed to the reconcilement of Poland as GG. The politician who sat next to him had the same to his merit - Richard von Weizsäcker.
Grass told me in Lithuania: “It´s nice in the West, but it's much more beautiful in the East”. This must have been a quote by his Kashubian grandmother. Our interaction continued.
We met again in January 2005 when we invited him to Kolkata. He spent two weeks in the Bengali metropolis. His visit was almost similar to the visit of a municipal leader with police protection. He had maintained his contacts in Kolkata over the decades. In the seventies, he meandered through the city, many poems were written, sketches were drawn, and most importantly, he penned his book “Showing the Tongue” (Zunge zeigen), about the life, the poverty in Kolkata. The book was exactly what was expected from GG – in his inimitable style: controversial, respected and spurned. Grass always polarized, and thus invigorated the political culture and debate in Germany as well as at the international level.
He took keen, intense interest in all those places that he visited. He abused Kolkata intellectuals that they still worshipped the “great dictator”. According to him, this was the fascist leader of the anti-colonial movement against the British and the Son of the City “Netaji” (Subhash Chandra Bose).
Grass was the most important author and intellectual as far as intercultural exchange with India is concerned, almost everyone knows him, especially in West Bengal. As we wandered through the city, even the rickshawwallahs on the street of Kolkata used to call out to him, “Oh, Mister Grass!”
(Dr Martin Wälde is the director of Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan Mumbai)