Peeling the Onion

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 November, 2008, 12:00am

by Gunter Grass, Vintage, HK$153

The driving force behind his novel The Tin Drum, Gunter Grass writes in his autobiography, Peeling the Onion, was the desire 'to produce something stupendous'. The novel - for which the Nobel Prize winner is most famous - brings his remarkable memoir to a satisfying end, and not just because the story is set in Danzig (now Gdansk), where he was born.

By the time Grass recounts tapping out the book on his typewriter in Paris, he says he has 'neither the onions nor the desire' to tell more.

Regarded as Germany's voice of conscience, Grass provoked outrage for recounting in his memoirs that at 17 he became a tank gunner in the Waffen SS. Readers will also discover that he had been a member of the Jungfolk (for pre-teen Hitler supporters) before he was drafted into the elite combat force. Much more is revealed in this oddly appealing book, which veers successfully from clarity through filmy memory. One incident sees him befriend in a POW camp a Bavarian called Joseph, who liked to quote Saint Augustine. The prisoner, Grass worked out, was probably Ratzinger, now better known as Pope Benedict XVI.