Unlikely as it sounds, Günter Grass and I switched places over the summer. Or maybe it only seemed like we did. It could have merely been a trick of the pen, but his newest book, “Peeling the Onion,” certainly made me feel as if we had switched bodies and situations for a moment.
Perhaps it was because jaw surgery had left me incapable of intermaxillary motion, unable to chew and unable to eat real food, that the younger Grass resonated so powerfully with me. There was a confluence between my real life and his life as he retold it. He was in an American prisoner of war camp, taking a cooking class wherein they had no food to prepare, starving. I, too, was suffering hunger pains, and was engrossed in the feasts he was taught to conjure out of thin air. I, just like him, could do no more than dream of delectable chewables, constrained as I was to mush for weeks.
And there we bonded. Sure, he was a Nazi soldier, a job he had volunteered for. And yeah, he was a member of the Waffen SS. But after sharing my hunger, he was so human to me that, if he were before me, I would have readily forgiven him.
This intensely self-critical, self-reflective stranger who is so beleaguered by shame, this art stamp collector, stonemason, fledgling artist, eventual writer, master dancer, lover, husband...Günter Grass became me, his mouth rubberbanded shut. I was him, playing dice with a religious Bavarian, discussing the future. Strange, isn’t it, the power of a good book?