cover image Too Far Afield

Too Far Afield

Gunter Grass. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $30 (672pp) ISBN 978-0-15-100230-6

Recent German unification is neatly, if protractedly, likened to the inner development of one of its bureaucrats in this novel of Berlin after reunification. The book is a worthy follow-up to My Century, which taught 100 years of history in human, understandable terms. Theo Wuttke, known as ""Fonty"" because he's obsessed with famous German novelist Theodor Fontane, is a former war correspondent now on his uppers as an elderly file courier in a government agency of the former German Democratic Republic. Blessed with an encyclopedic memory, Fonty often recites poems from different languages, to his co-workers' secret derision. Weary of life at the agency, he tries to escapeDonce to Scotland, another time to Great BritainDbut a spy named Ludwig Hoftaller, himself an incarnation of a 19th-century figure and often called Fonty's ""day-and-night-shadow,"" always finds him. Hoftaller's motivation is never made clear: perhaps fear that Fonty will leak German state secrets, perhaps loneliness, perhaps both. The past keeps impinging on the present; Hoftaller knows truths about marital infidelities in Fonty's past that keep Fonty from rebelling too forcefully. The two old men wander the streets of Berlin, each struggling with WWII guilt, as both of them had connections to Hitler's regime. Some overlong passages detailing German history will be lost on American readers, and Fonty's rambling monologues constantly threaten to bring the novel to a halt. However, the psychologically complex portrayal of a man's gradual relinquishing of his social position in order to keep his spirit intact is more than enough to maintain a reader's passion in the work. Fonty does manage to escape eventually, his victory that of a profoundly human figure who embodies both the bitterness and the sweetness of an era's passing. (Dec.)