This is a rare example of a novelist attempting to describe the political process and finding in it a rich seam of human reflection rather than commonplace satire at the expense of politicians and their ambitions. It follows the campaign trail of Willy Brandt's election to the West German chancellorship in 1969. In an early example of politicians co-opting fashionable authors, Grass was invited along on the journey to campaign for the Social Democrats.
Out of material from which lesser authors would have made mere reportage, Grass weaves an extraordinary tale linking a recurring obsession with Dürer's Melancholia and an existential treatise on the nature of Doubt, who becomes a character in his own right. It is underpinned by Brandt's attempts to begin a formal process of reconciliation for the Third Reich and the struggles of the political process to deal with the enormity of the past. Grass contemplates the national journey towards a centre-left coalition after the lengthy post-war rule by Konrad Adenauer, whose party represented a far tougher variant of Christian Democracy than the inoffensive version on display in Germany today.
But the universal appeal of this book lies in the intensity with which Grass evinces the long, painful haul of a party back to power: in the Social Democrats' case, after half a century in the wilderness. "Only those who know and respect stasis in progress, who have once and more than once given up, who have sat on an empty shell and experienced the dark side of utopia, can evaluate progress," concludes Grass. It must surely be the best condensed defence of democratic gradualism in politics and a tribute to a rich, dense writer's craft. "What is history?" asks Doubt. "The snail." And what is progress? "Being a little faster than the snail." Now there is a lesson for New Labour to decipher today all over again.
Anne McElvoy is executive editor of the Evening Standard