Here's the latest development on Gunter Grass's 'story' ... He did end his Frankfuerter Allgemeine Zeitung interview - in which he first spoke of the 'Joseph story' in public, with the sentence "It's a beautiful story, don't you think?". A writer exercising artistic license, perhaps. In any case, not sure now that his Joseph was our Joseph! Here's a translation of an item in Corriere della Sera today
The Nobel laureate's turnabout:
'That Joseph may not have been Ratzinger -
I am not sure, I can only assume"
By Giacomella Gabriella
"All right, hand over heart, Guenter - that boy you met at POW camp, was it really him who is now Benedict XVI?"
"I can only assume it was."
In his third interview in three days - following the 2-page interview in Frankfuerter Allgemeine Zeitung
which set off a national ruckus preceding the publication of his autobiography - Guenter Grass is stepping back from his original assertions.
Questioning him this time were two journalists of the German news agency dpa. The question was direct, even urgent: was it or was it not Ratzinger whom he recalls playing dice with and conversing about their plans in life that summer of 1945?
Answer: "This recollection first came to me while I was writing
[the autobiography]. What is certain is that at Bad Aibling, this open-air mass detention camp for some 100,000 German POWs, I shared a hole in the ground with a young man of my age - we were both 17. He was Bavarian, intensely Catholic almost to the point of fanaticism, and was able, at age 17, to insert a Latin quotation from time to time in his conversations...He wanted to make it to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church; I wanted to be an artist, a famous one." That was the recollection.
Then - and this was about a year ago - "while I was writing the manuscript for my memoirs, a German became Pope. And I discovered that he was at Bad Aibling - of course I knew who Cardinal Raztinger was, I was familiar with his conservative views, his background and how he came to the forefront gradually. Suddenly, it seemed to me I knew this Joseph - the way he conducts himself, his shyness, his persistence, his sensitivity - and I could only suppose that the boy I met was him."
So, this was not a direct denial by Grass of something he previously said. Nor was it a statement from his literary agent to the effect that "Mr. Grass's statements have been misunderstood- we never said that the boy Joseph was to be identified as Ratzinger."
But it was a reply among many others - almost a reprise of those pages in Peeling the Onion
(Sbucciando la Cipolla)*, the chapter called "At table with guests", in which the Nobel laureate recounts his meeting and dialogs with 'the grand inquisitor' Joseph, between games of dice and chewing cumin.
But in that "I can only assume it was he" one also hears the cackle of laughter from Grass's sister, an ex-nun, to whom he told the story soon after the conclave: "What a liar you are, you bastard!"
And the only person who can confirm or deny Grass's story is not going to speak up. "It's a question that concerns the private life of the Holy Father," the Vatican Press Office said yesterday, when asked by the dpa.
But in the narrow circle of Benedict XVI's close associates, no one recalls that he ever once mentioned any acquaintance with his illustrious countrymate.
The key to the mystery may lie in another passage from yesterday's interview with dpa, which also echoes the introduction to Grass's autobiography, in which he speaks about intermittent recollections, somewhat like "a salad of images."
To the dpa journalists, he said his new book was "not a classic autobiography, not one of those which set out facts and data in an orderly manner. Rather it is an attempt to rediscover the young man I was, who is unknown to me, and to interrogate him on how he acted in certain circumstances."
Both in writing and orally, Grass seems to be telling the public: Take me seriously, but not too much! This is a narrative work, not a historical reconstruction. There are holes in the story, jumps in time; and memory, which sometimes betrays, often does not help find answers either. Particularly, not the reason why 'I never asked questions.' [About the Nazis - given that the book discloses Grass actively sought to join the Nazi armed forces and ended up enrolled in the Waffen-SS
A considerable part of the book is impregnated with silences, shame and fear, and German media has concentrated on this aspect.
Meanwhile, the Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger
, a Cologne newspaper, itself had to retract its story that the imminent declassification of an alleged dossier on Grass from the archives of the Stasi (East German secret police)had occasioned Grass's public revelation of his SS past.
Two peers of Grass issued statements of support in London and New York.
"It's a manufactured scandal," said Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses
. "Grass remains today the same great writer that he was a few days ago."
John Irving, who wrote The World According to Garp
, wmong others, said: "For me, he remains a hero, both as a writer and as a moral compass. His courage is more admirable, rather than diminished, with this revelation."
In his interview with ARD television, Grass had said that "if the mayor of Danzig [Gdansk, now part of Poland, Grass's hometown and setting of his Nobel-winning novel The Tin Drum
] asks me to give up my honorary citizenship in Danzig, I would, but otherwise, I do not see any reason for doing so."
Meanwhile, the first printing of 150,000 of Peeling the Onion
is almost sold out [within a few days], and the newspaper BILD has calculated that Grass has already earned some 1.7 million Euros in royalties.
His publisher, Steidl Verlag, is already printing a second edition of 100,000 copies, and 12 coutries have already bought publishing rights.
The intermittences of memory, it seems, are not a disdavantage to commercial success.
*The German title is Beim Hauten der Zwiebel so the correct translation is Peeling the Onion, not Peeling Onions
DOUBTS ABOUT GRASS
The more the story progresses, the more doubts arise about Guenter Grass, especially about his POW-camp friendship with a fellow 17-year-old Joseph Ratzinger in Bad Aibling.
A memory which, in the interview Grass gave to Frankfuerter Allgemeine Zeitung
published last Saturday, appeared quite clear, but now reduced by the author himself to a simple supposition that occurred to the writer when Ratzinger was elected Pope.
Some perplexity was originally raised because Grass, identified as an SS member (even in American documents of the time), should have been interned in an area separate from that of regular German armed forces, as Ratzinger surely was.
But it may be that Grass's age may have earned him a more gentle treatment by his American captors [and so he was interned with the regular forces
Now it turns out that in the book, the pious Joseph with whom Grass played dice is in fact not explicitly identified as Ratzinger.
Grass's interview with dpa further muddies the waters. One gets the impression of a clever alternation between disclosure and stepping back. But while the doubts may continue to grow, the sales figures tell us that if this was a marketing strategy, it certainly works perfectly!