Book Review: “Im Krebsgang”, Günter Grass

Some people may think that the recent downing of flight MH17 is the first time, hundreds of people have become the innocent victims of warring factions or countries. This is of course not true. Hundreds and thousands of innocent people have been and are still being murdered, whenever and wherever humanity is at war.

Günther Grass uses a forgotten act of war which occurred towards the end of the Second World War, to illustrate that such acts and their aftermath will never end. He shows the impact these acts have on the lives of survivors and their kin. He illustrates that people will never stop using such horrifying acts to continue murdering innocents, using the past acts as an excuse to serve their own interests, needs, aims. The last two sentences of the story are: ”Das hört nicht auf. Nie hört das auf.” (It does not stop. It never ends.) And this truth means this small story has no happy end. It does not even offer humanity and the reader any hope.

Journalist Paul Pokriefke tells the story “im Krebsgang”, like a crab going back, forth, sideways. It is his way to try and cope with traumas and horrors and to try and make sense of his family’s history. Of course, the family’s traumas are linked to Germany’s distant past, more recent past, and present.

Pokriefke starts his story by focussing on the lives of three people living in the late 19th and early 20th century. Wilhelm Gustloff becomes an early Nazi supporter and is murdered by Jewish David Frankfurter. To commemorate Gustloff, his name is given to a German cruise ship. Towards the end of the war, this ship will be attacked by the Russian U-boot captain Alexander Marinesko, born in Odessa.

The Gustloff is torpedoed and sinks on a voyage while carrying as many refugees as possible to the relative safety of a German port. Nearly 10,000 refugees, many of them children, do not survive the ice-cold water and ensuing horrors. It is the largest loss of life in a single ship-sinking in history. Yet like so many similar acts of war, this one is largely forgotten, because it suited the then warring parties.

Paul’s mother is one of the few survivors and he is born just before or shortly after the destruction of the Gustloff. Mother and son end up in communist Germany, though Paul is able to flee to the West. He marries, but the marriage breaks down. Once the Berlin Wall falls, Paul’s son settles with his grandmother, in the former DDR, where the spiral of violence continues.

Though the book is no comfortable read, after the first few pages, the reader becomes immersed in the various story-lines. The “Krebsgang” manner of interweaving the various stories, the pacing of incidents, the sympathy the reader feels for Paul and the suspense and dosed revelations make it a good read. After finishing it, the reader certainly has several things to think about.

“Im Krebsgang”, Günter Grass, first published 2002, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2004, 215 pp.
“Crabwalk”, Günter Grass, Faber 2003, 234 pp

For two reviews of the English version of the book:
Observer 2003
Guardian 2003

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