The Call of the Toad
Like The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, and Dog Years, Günter Grass’ new novel, The Call of the Toad, takes us to his birthplace, the Baltic port of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland), and buries us in the muck and bones of history — this time almost literally, since the plot we’re drawn into is a cemetery plot. A diffident German widower and sprightly Polish widow meet by chance in a Gdansk market in November 1989, a few days before the Berlin Wall comes down. He’s visiting the city where he grew up; she’s there to place flowers on her parents’ grave. Her parents, she remarks, would rather have been buried in Wilno, the formerly Polish town that they fled during the war when it became Vilnius, part of Soviet Lithuania. His parents in turn would rather have been buried in Danzig, which they fled after the war when it became Gdansk, part of Communist Poland. An idea and a romance blossom simultaneously. By the time she spends the night with him in his hotel, they’ve hatched a scheme to repatriate, if not the living, at least the dead. They will form a corporation to purchase cemeteries in Gdansk and Vilnius so that exiles in this ”Century of Expulsions” can rest in peace where they were born. The project quickly gets off, or under, the ground.
In fact, as deutsche marks from eager-to-be-buried investors pour in, their business gathers a momentum that takes the mildly idealistic founders further into capitalism than they want to go. The plot gives Grass a supply of his patented satirical humor, much of it aimed at the Western greed and Eastern xenophobia glaringly exposed by the fall of the wall. But the satire is balanced by the gentler comedy of two people of 60 falling awkwardly, unexpectedly in love. The contrast between Alexander and Alexandra plays with stereotypes for the sake of reconciling them — German and Polish, male and female, tentative and passionate, scholarly and intuitive, thin and plump — divided by the distempers of history and ideology, united during a perhaps deceptive calm. He’s an art historian who specializes in tombstone sculpture and inscriptions; she restores the gilding on decayed church ornaments and angels. He had been in the Hitler Youth and has become a devout liberal; she had been in the Communist Party and has become a devout skeptic. Both are connoisseurs of evanescence and guilt whose love, as it must be in the 20th century, is love among the ruins. But one of Grass’ satirical points is made by asking whether a ruin is a ruin if no one remembers what was ruined, what is missing. For Alexander’s grown-up daughters and Alexandra’s grown-up son, the cemetery project is an ”anachronistic homeland cult” and ”petty bourgeois wishful thinking.”
The narrator, a former Danzig schoolmate reconstructing the story from Alexander’s diaries, is, for all intents and purposes, Grass himself. He sees both the absurdity and the nostalgic logic of the cemetery project; the mood of the book itself is thwarted nostalgia. It’s as if Grass wanted to embrace his Danzig childhood — the lost buildings, countryside, dialect — but too much ”lethal history and barbarism” separate his youth from himself. What comes back to him most vividly is a country sound, the call of the toads: ”That plaintive double note after a short strike. That everlasting lament ‘Oh, woe to you!’…In many German fairy tales…the call of the toad foreshadows disaster…In the old days the toad was believed to be wise. It was only later, as times grew steadily worse, that toads became the harbingers of calamity.” Calamity appears on cue in this bleak and oblique German fairy tale; the comic consolation is that it’s small, toadlike, un-German in scale. A-