The sound of silence

<strong>Peeling the Onion</strong>

Günter Grass <em>Harvill Secker, 425pp, £18.99</em>

It is the techniques with which the Nobel Prize-winning German writer Günter Grass peels away at time - not simply memory - that make Peeling the Onion such a compelling memoir. The emotions unleashed are raw: the reader can hardly bear to watch as Grass uncovers the experiences whose revelation gained this book notoriety on its publication in Germany last year - his involvement in a system that planned, organised and executed the extermination of millions of people.

Grass uses his deep pleasure in language to explore the profound silence at the core of his life, the time when he was "at a loss for words". His memoir opens with the beginning of the war, which heralds the end of Grass's childhood and, with it, childhood's uninhibited questioning. As Grass picks away at the past, it is a guilty silence he finds in its layers: silence when his Latin teacher suddenly disappears, as he dodges the word "why".

For Grass, "two words so close and so deeply rooted in the soil of the German language" are debts (Schulden) and guilt (Schuld). As an 11-year-old, Grass worked as a debt collector, witnessing first-hand the "poverty and anxieties of large working-class families". Now, as the weight of the past stands in his way, he is ready to break the silence, rigorously questioning himself: "Did I partake in what was beginning to be called German collective guilt?"

"I have a problem with time," he admits, "the older I get, the less stable is that crutch, chronology." Indeed, the onion of memory cares little for sequence and sticking to the chronological course of events constrains him "like a corset". Rather, memories are best recovered "through chinks" in time, which reveal not only guilt, but acute yearning. Grass themes many of his experiences around hunger and the possibilities of satiation. Shame, "like hunger, gnaws ceaselessly", and he also details the three overriding hungers of his life: physical hunger, sexual appetite and his "lust for art".

The yearning to retrieve what has been lost endows a mood of powerful yet unsentimental nostalgia. It is mostly objects that his memory "rubs up against" - of everything that has gone astray, he misses a set of notebooks most.

These missing objects create a blankness upon which he can only project speculations. "There is no record whatsoever of my beginnings," he laments, for his mother packed his possessions in an abandoned detergent box. He learns that the reconstruction of the past is a Sisyphean task - "I am unable to piece myself together, there are only fragments."

At its close, the memoir focuses on the image of Grass as a young man, in around 1955, wearing a beret, propelled by his hunger for language, trying to form a first sentence out of as few words as possible, "a sentence terse enough to blow up the dam and let the words flow", a sentence that would open doors (he knows that "books have always been his gap in the fence, his entry into other worlds").

His clattering Olivetti eats up sheet after sheet of typing paper and yet never seems sated, he throws away early poems, sure of their inadequacy. But standing at the damp, dripping wall of his studio, he finally begins to write from dawn to dusk, "there was so much that wanted to be smelled, tasted, seen, named". He discovers not hunger, but fulfilment in an inner world rich in characters. It is with extreme eloquence that he can finally excavate the silences at the heart of his life.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The new terror