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From the Diary of a Snail (Aus Dem Tagebuch Einer Schnecke)

FROM THE DIARY OF A SNAIL (Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke)

Novel by Günter Grass, 1972

Günter Grass's novel From the Diary of a Snail, published in English translation in 1973, appeared in German as Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke in 1972. A significant part of the novel deals with the German election campaign of 1969, but one portion describes what happened to the Jews from Danzig (now Gdansk) while that city was under Nazi occupation. On the political level the novel is aimed at two targets. The first is Kurt Georg Kiesinger, of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) on the right of the political spectrum, a former Nazi and at the time the chancellor of West Germany. The second is the so-called extraparliamentary opposition, composed of various left-liberal activists opposed to the establishment and to the policies of the federal parliament.

During the 1960s Grass was constantly involved in political activities. He supported the Social Democratic Party (SPD) as no other writer before him had done. The SPD's top candidate, Willy Brandt, became one of his best friends, and Brandt's writings have influenced Grass's works ever since. Yet political activism has to be learned by doing, and From the Diary of a Snail can be regarded as the final document of that phase of Grass's experience.

When asked by his son to define his profession, Grass replies that he sees himself as writing against the current of time. It is a seemingly futile occupation, but he keeps trying nevertheless. This attitude, in turn, allows his references to Albrecht Dürer's engraving Melencolia I (1514) to become defiant and anti-idealistic: "Only those who know and respect stasis in progress, who have once and more than once given up, who have sat on an empty snail shell and experienced the dark side of utopia, can evaluate progress."

In the novel Grass tells his children about the campaign. He concludes that democracy in action moves very slowly, which leads to the metaphor of the snail: "'What do you mean by the snail?' 'The snail is progress.' 'What's progress?' 'Being a little quicker than the snail' … and yet never getting there, children." The children hear another story that retraces the horrible plight of the Jews from Danzig. Before describing the actual circumstances, the author reflects on the difficulties involved in writing for or talking to his children about the Holocaust: "I hear Franz or Raoul asking about the Jews: 'What about them? What's the story?' You notice that I falter whenever I abbreviate. I can't find the needle's eye, and I start babbling. Because this, but first that, and meanwhile the other, but only after …"

Grass also notes the impersonal, technical nature of quantitative or scientific information regarding the Holocaust: "'Exactly how many were they?' 'How did they count them?' It was a mistake to give you the total, the multidigitate number. It was a mistake to give the mechanism a numerical value, because perfect killing arouses hunger for technical details and suggests questions about breakdowns. 'Did it always work?' 'What kind of gas was it?"'

Grass begins the story by stressing its universality: "Now I'll tell you … how it happened where I come from—slowly, deliberately, and in broad daylight. Preparations for the universal crime were made in many places at the same time though at unequal speeds." Throughout the novel Grass weaves in historical facts. He mentions the 7,479 Jews left in Danzig in early 1938 and the "barely 4,000 Jews left" at the end of November 1938, and he includes accounts of persecution, hate speeches, acts of violence, the boycott of Jewish stores, Kristallnacht (Crystal Night, 9-10 November 1938), expulsions from professional life, segregation, isolation from other communities, the ghetto, the emigration to the United States and Palestine, the fate of Jews who died in the German concentration camp at Theresienstadt, and the many others who were murdered in mass shootings or in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Treblinka. He describes the last Jewish emigrants leaving Danzig "on August 26, 1940 (a Monday)" and the drownings and diseases that killed most of them. Grass leaves his readers with a warning: "This ability to get used to genocide has its parallel in a premature readiness to shrug off the crimes of the National Socialists as momentary insanity, as an irrational aberration, as something incomprehensible and therefore forgivable."

As a political novel From the Diary of a Snail also generates a historical dimension. As a historical novel it includes both historical details and reflections on the writing of history, especially the obstacles one faces in trying to describe events that were part of the Holocaust.

—Mark Gruettner

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