cover image My Century

My Century

Gunter Grass. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $31 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-15-100496-6

Nobel laureate Grass's deft new collection of stories thoroughly and intimately marks the passing of the 20th century. Comprising 100 monologues, each named after a year of the century and spoken by characters who represent a broad spectrum of German society, the work becomes the literary equivalent of a choral symphony. The stories include the reminiscences of ex-Nazis about their activities in 1934; a dead woman's perspective on Germany after the crumble of the Berlin Wall (1999); a delirious letter by the turn-of-the-century poet Else Lasker-Sch ler (found by the story's narrator in a used book), in which she imagines herself to be 20 years younger than she is (1901); and the author's descriptions of his beleaguered personal life (1987). Several entries establish some continuity from year to year, while other segments clash brilliantly with each other. The volume progresses less like a narrative than like an argument, each year's oral history advancing the thesis that history and personal identity are inextricably linked. Unlike Grass's earlier politically tinged and more willfully surreal work, this novel is consistently realistic, with only a few exceptions. Although the units are always engaging, some of them are drier than others, based upon abstruse but suggestive information, such as the details of munitions manufacture or obscure battle maneuvers. The effect of the episodic narration is a sort of cacophony, but one that is finally resolved into a complex, multipart harmony. Much like the voices echoing in a train station or airport, this cumulative sound reminds the reader of the rich fabric of humankind's collective existence. Grass (The Tin Drum) concludes with the memories of a 103-year-old woman who has been brought back to life by her novelist son for the purposes of his fiction. As she says: ""I'm also looking forward to the year 2000. We'll see what comes of it... "" (Dec.) FYI: This volume will be published simultaneously around the world.