Sunday, March 6, 2016

Too Far Afield, by Gunter Grass

Gunter Grass's 1995 novel Too Far Afield is set in East Berlin during the time leading up to, during, and immediately following the breaching of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany.  His primary character, Theo Wuttke, known as Fonty, is an aging scholar/ file courier in the Reich Aviation Ministries building, whose labors under the East German government have earned him a permanent shadow, a man named Hoftaller.  Unlike the spies familiar to us from stories and movies, Fonty and Hoftaller have many conversations, spend a lot of time together, and work together - except when Hoftaller plays his government-agent card to prevent Fonty from going "too far afield" - speaking bluntly about political affairs, pursuing his friendship with a Jewish professor, leaving Germany, and so on.

Fonty's life study is of the writer Theodor Fontane, a man born exactly a century before him, and whose life events he parallels, consciously and unconsciously, throughout his own.  Fontane, referred to as The Immortal, becomes, through Fonty's scholarship and life-mimicry, indeed a timeless figure.  Working under censorship constraints, Fonty uses lectures about The Immortal to cast light on current events, a secret language well understood by his audience.

The novel has two central metaphors. First is the paternoster, a continually moving loop elevator whose open-front compartments one simply steps into to board, and out of to leave, on any floor.  No doors, no buttons, no pausing to move cumbersome objects on or off.  And no record, visible from other floors or by any engine-room observer, of one's travels.  Thus, a person who has occasion to visit many parts of a building, such as file courier Fonty, can choose his compartment companion, or avoid one, and make his journeys, observing activity on every floor he passes, all unobtrusively.  He and Hoftaller take many long rides together, and when tasked with writing a history of the building, he describes the appearance, feet first or hat first, of various high-level officials as they ride the conveyance.  Having worked in the Ministries Building under first the Reich, then the Workers and Peasants State, and finally in its incarnation as the Handover Trust, Fonty is as much a piece of its history as the paternoster itself.  Grass uses the elevator's circularity as one more confirmation of the cyclical nature of life - especially Fonty's.

His other metaphor is the diving duck. Fonty loves to spend time in the Tiergarten, watching the ducks paddle along, vanish suddenly beneath the surface, then pop up - where?  He envies them, because he would disappear if he could - indeed, he tries.  But he is also a diving duck, veiling his own views in his talks and articles about The Immortal, as though the present time were some lake surface he can dive beneath, traveling in concealment till he emerges to make his point.  And thus, though the government distrusts him, he is able to express himself with comparative freedom.

The plot, modest as it is, does not distract from the central observations of unification's impact particularly on East Germans: having grown poorer than their Western counterparts, they are underdogs when the private property confiscated by the East German state comes up for sale, and is promptly snatched up by West Germans with money.  The richly ironic title of the Handover Trust perfectly encapsulates this imbalance - the handover is essentially a handout to West German businesspeople, and trust is nonexistent.

Grass beautifully weaves the centuries together, showing that experience is recurrence, and that knowing the past is not only instructive but essential to knowing who we are as individuals, as nations, as humans.

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