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Günter does India

By Geoff Wisner

The prolific Günter Grass has produced poems, plays, novels, novellas, memoirs, essays, and speeches, but Show Your Tongue is (at least so far) his only work that could be described as a travel book.

Published in 1988 as Ein Tagebuch in Zeichnungen (A Diary in Drawings) and translated into English by John E. Woods, it appeared the following year as Show Your Tongue.

Show Your Tongue grew out of Grass's six-month stay in India with his wife Ute, during which Grass helped mount a Bengali production of his play The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising. Grass and his wife were based in Calcutta, but made trips to other parts of India and to Bangladesh.

In writing about his time in India, Grass strains to add fresh perspectives and literary layers to his experience. He resurrects the nineteenth century novelist Theodor Fontane (whom his wife is reading) as a ghostly commentator, and he has much to say about Subhas Chandra Bose, a nationalist leader and Nazi sympathizer who died in mysterious circumstances in 1945.

Yet none of this, and not even his involvement with his own play, can take Grass away from his central subject, the poverty and misery of the poor in Calcutta. Here he observes homeless refugees from the countryside as they settle themselves for the night in Five Point Crossing, near an equestrian statue of Bose.

Everyone sleeps a different sleep. Limbs stretched or folded. Bodies wrapped like mummies or under coverings that are too short. Rows of child-bundles. Obstructed by sacks of garbage, by bundles of old paper, they multiply in their sleep. Bony and pale, a calf towers into view.

All this seen from the middle of the road — the pictures jolt out of focus with each bounce. Sudden light rips open facades, slashes the darkness. Tea shops, still open, are wrenched askew, as are the market, open for Durga Puja. Everything plummets, the garish arc lamps plummet too, as if an Expressionist had invented this rush of streets for a woodcut of epileptic collapse.

Several ink drawings of sleepers like these emphasize the bare shins and splayed toes of the sleepers. The drawings are hurried, agitated, messy, with a cartoonish satirical edge that suggests Ralph Steadman. Walls and sidewalks are covered with lines of scrawled German, as if the artist is trying to explain what he sees to himself.

Like his earlier book Inmarypraise, Show Your Tongue features the poetry and art of Grass along with his prose. The poetry, less nuanced than the prose, is the weakest element of the three. The prose and the drawings, however, work well together.

Early in the book, Grass seems inclined to take a rosy view of the many rats and crows. Having finished his novel The Rat a couple of years before, Grass has some affection for rats.

Catercorner to the Raj Bhavan, in whose lodges I was the governor’s guest eleven years before (like Vasco, a returnee), a small area with a knee-high fence around it attracts an audience. Its surface belongs solely to rats and crows and appears to be sanctified ground. At noon and at the end of the business day, office workers from the firms on Esplanade Row and employees of the Telegraph Office feed the rats and crows potato chips or peanuts, sold by a vendor right next to the enclosure.

We buy peanuts too. Into holes, out of holes no larger than a golf cup, rats scurry. Crows hop, take off, talon the scraps the rats have left behind, just as the rats feast on what the crows have left behind. No squabbles between species. They tolerate one another as peaceably as might have all the beasts in paradise.

The drawings tell a less benign story. In one picture after another, the omnipresent crows are a sinister presence, plummeting from the sky onto their prey, and blackening the sky with their wings. As a chronicle of slums, beggars, and urban decay, Show Your Tongue offers no new insights, but Grass's pungent language brings his surroundings to life.

Published Feb 14, 2012   Copyright 2012 Geoff Wisner

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