Me Of Words, I Was Mute'
Gunter Grass in conversation with Subhoranajan Dasgupta
S.D: Mr Grass, what
is your impression of President George Bush?
Grass: I regard this man as a danger, a threat to world peace.
He reminds me of one of those characters in Shakespeare's historical
plays whose only ambition perhaps is to stand before his father, the
old and departed king, and say, 'Look, I have completed your task.
' He is determined to bring
the first Gulf War to its culmination by launching yet another. Bush
Jr is inspired by private, family reasons; he is prompted by hereditary
compulsions. The economic interests of the Bush family are also playing
a role. The family is deeply involved in the oil business. Political
interests and business aspirations, therefore, are finely enmeshed in
his war cry against Iraq. The third reason is, of course, the usa's
status as the only Almighty Superpower in the world. The superpower
wants to control and direct the rest of the world but it knows so little
about the rest of this world. It knows almost nothing. This dangerous
combination of familial, economic and political interests in this single
leader has turned him into a real danger.
S.D: Does this visible
alliance of economic and political interests point towards a close connection
between neo-liberalism and the so-called fight against terrorism?
Grass: Certainly. Immediately after that terrible onslaught on
September 11, I stressed that the source of this assault lies embedded
in the rage and hatred of the so-called Third World against the affluent
First. Unless and until we eradicate the causes of this deep-seated,
justified anger, terrorism will continue. Way back in the '70s, German
statesman Willy Brandt drew our attention repeatedly to the horrible
inequality scarring the earth, this deep divide between the haves and
have-nots. He predicted that if we fail to establish a just new world
economic order, violence will erupt. That violence, in the form of terrorism,
is afflicting us now. There are of course several other reasonscultural,
regional, historical etcbut the main reason, shocking disparity,
should not be undervalued.
I dream of a world order
where the developed and developing countries will share the same table
and also share the world's resources, technology and capital in the
most equitable manner. As long as this dream remains merely a dream,
world peace will be impossible to achieve. Who is responsible for this
mess? The North and the West. We in the affluent world have failed repeatedly
and deliberately because we have protected our limited interests at
the expense of others. This self-centred attitude, this business of
enriching oneself is of course a product of neo-liberal theory and practice
which refuses to look beyond its nose. It follows that if Bush repeats
his Afghanistan experiment in another part of the world, he will be
encouraging another new wave of terrorism, he will be sponsoring another
generation of terrorists.
S.D: You seem to brand
the present nature of capitalism as a major culprit?
Grass: Of course.
After the fall of socialism, capitalism is left without a rival. And
in this extraordinary situation it has emerged as an avaricious, above
all suicidal force, bent on destroying itself.It thinks that it can
get away with any and everything. What now transpires in the stockmarket
is nothing more than destruction of capital. And along with it the destruction
of employment, workplace and human resources. When a firm announces
that it is going to slash 200 jobs, its share value jumps. This is madness.
The present form of market-blind capitalism has spawned its own enemy,
its own Frankenstein. This system could collapse one day. We don't have
an alternative now nor do we know if we'll have one in the near future.
In a state of big, depressing vacuum, we may have to experience a new
form of fascism, whose face we are not able to envisage now. We can
see traces though.
I don't believe in any limitless,
hope-resplendent utopia; that is why I will not posit any utopia as
antithesis. What I can say is that we have to try and try against the
present scheme of things. The stone of Sisyphus has to be rolled up
again and again.
S.D: The Gunter Grass
House concentrates not only on your evolution as poet and novelist but
also on Grass, the artist and sculptor. Is Grass the writer inextricably
connected with Grass the artist or is the artist autonomous and independent?
Grass: A steady and continuing relationship of exchange between
the word and the line characterises my creativity. The first instance
of such coexistence is, of course, my poetry. Would you believe that
the source of many of my lyrics is drawing and design. The first flutter
of the lyric I often transcribed in drawings which later gradually took
the form of words. Thereafter, the lyric and drawing reinforced and
enriched each other, and they dwell side by side in my books of poems.
The opposite has also taken placeoften I have begun with words
and then the words merged into drawings.
This alliance of words and
art is visible in my prose as well, in novels like The Rat and A Wide
Field, in reminiscences like Show Your Tongue and My Century. When I
write, the manuscript does not remain confined to words. I break the
flow with drawings, designs, figures. In fact, I visualise the constellation
of events and characters in my novels with these pictures. These drawings
and pictures, with the progress of time, free themselves from the word-scattered
pages. Following laborious interventions, these turn into self-reliant
lithography, water colours, drawings and in, some cases, even sculptures.
So the relation between the artist and the writer operates at two levelsin
the first phase, at the level of interdependence and mutual enrichment,
and then at the level of artistic autonomy.
S.D: There are a few
exhibits of your Calcutta-India phase in the Gunter Grass House. When
will we see a more comprehensive view of this phase?
Grass: Well, this
inaugural exhibition should be regarded as a chronological overview
of what I have done from the beginning till the present day. In the
future, we shall concentrate on the different creative phases separately.
I must confess that my first prolonged encounter with Calcutta robbed
me of my words. I turned mute. My silence was the reaction of a closeted
West European caught in the vortex of Calcutta for the first time. The
contrast was so immense, so bewildering between the world I had left
behind and the world I entered that my words failed to capture the difference.
At that moment of wordlessness, I began to sketch Calcutta. My sketches,
a crucial part of Show Your Tongue, led gradually to words. In that
sense, I cherish the Calcutta drawings as something very special and
S.D: Will you come
to Calcutta again?
Grass: I dream of Calcutta often. It is a steady theme in my
thoughts. I am now 75 years old. If I can manage to find the time and
strength, I shall certainly come again. I long to come for a short while.Calcutta-Dhaka-India-Bangladesh-Bengalis-Subhas
Bose, I am tied to this sphere intensely. From The Flounder to My Century,
Calcutta and Bengalis have been present in my work in several ways.
Zunge Zeigen is devoted to Calcutta and the protagonist in Call of The
Toad is a Bengali whose name is Subhas Chandra Chatterjee. This theme,
so close to my heart, in another shape or colour, could come back to
my texts again.
S.D: Many in Germany
and Europe would like to regard you as the conscience of post-war Germany,
especially after the death of Heinrich Boll...
Grass: No, it would be totally wrong to regard me as that. Like
Boll, I have always rejected this idea of appearing as the conscience-figure
of my people. Tell me, whose burden of conscience could I possibly carry;
whose conscience could I endeavour to clear or relieve? As an aware
citizen of Germany and as a writer, I associate myself with the trials
and travails of my society, with its advance or regress. Based on my
experience and political principles, I either support certain happenings
and processes or I voice my protest. Whenever there is a major political
debate, I take a position. Well, this engagement or, if you prefer that
term, activism, I have always practiced. I shall practise this in the
future as well. To that extent, I do not encourage or endorse the 'I
myself' preoccupation of those creative writers who deliberately distance
themselves from their social conditions. But that does not mean that
I embody the conscience of someone else. I reject any such representative
( The interview was first
published in Out Look magazine)