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Resemblance of things past

GŁnter Grass's shadowy account of his long and eventful life, Peeling the Onion, is far less convincing than his fiction

Peeling the Onion
By Günter Grass
Translated, from the German, by Michael Henry Heim
Harcourt, 425 pp., illustrated, $26

At a party in Jerusalem many years ago, an American millionaire glad-handed a venerable Israeli paleontologist whose desert life among the Bedouins had taught him the modesty of indirection. "I'm Ben Hirsch, that's me," the American announced. "I'm Jacov Ben-Tor," the old man answered, "but that isn't me."

Such a dematerializing note keys Günter Grass's memoir, or perhaps anti-memoir. "Peeling the Onion" is a work of memory that continually shuns itself. Many passages that a memoir would cast as "I was" or "I did " are voiced as "Was I?" or "Did I?"

Part of this lies in the painful burden of confession. Late in the war, the 16-year-old Grass was drafted into a ragtag Waffen - SS division soon to disintegrate before the unstoppable Soviet advance. The writer, whose entire literary and political career has been a battle against his society's hypocrisy and reaction, had never disclosed this, and when he finally did, in 2006, in a German edition of this book, it stirred up a storm. Perhaps his silence was as much from embarrassment as from shame; after all, along with a hodgepodge of youngsters and oldsters, he'd done little but flee.

The real shame lay elsewhere, and it is central to his wincing recollection. It lay in the fact that as a boy he'd been an enthusiastic little Nazi, though not a fanatic (he was never, he tells us, an informer); and that he had failed to ask questions, even within his family, about the unexplained disappearance of a teacher, the smashing of a synagogue in his Danzig (now Gdansk ) neighborhood, and the execution of an uncle who'd resisted the Nazi occupation of the supposed international free city.

More than anything, what torments Grass is the recollection of silence. "Torments" is the wrong word, though. It is too close to the sentimental Sturm und Drang tradition that Grass rejects -- one that writes cold while seeming to write hot (death-camp doctor deliquesces with Brahms). Grass has always written hot while writing cold.

Rather than torment, then, what the recollection of silence does is to make him unable to recognize himself. (Which accounts for the frequent disembodied pallor of "Onion," since self-recognition is the life blood of memoir .) After all, Grass's whole literary life has been an acerb protest against the fetid mutism of much of German society during the war, and for a long stretch after.

Rattling into life at the end of the 1950 s, Oskar Matzerath's tin drum kept on rattling, one way or another, through the novels that followed. Dry, sardonic (think Brecht), it sounded the icy indictment wielded by the no-longer-silenced younger generation that read Grass. Wielded to a fault, perhaps; yet it helped make confronting history virtually a constitutional foundation for contemporary Germany .

In his novels, Grass found his own tin drum. A voice that could speak for him without having to be his. He'd been a soldier, a prisoner, a miner, a stonemason, a sculptor , and a poet through cataclysmic times; yet at 28, when he tried to put these times into fiction, he struggled for months to find a first line that would let him get started. When found, it had the dry, metallic distance of the drum itself: "Granted, I am an inmate of a mental hospital," begins Oskar, his narrator and alter non-ego -- thus locating mid-century Germany much the way Joseph Heller's " Catch-22" phrase located mid-century war.

Novel followed drummed-out novel. And when it came to Grass's own life, so much had been turned into a confected creation that a void remained. Grass has lived fully, painfully, rewardingly, but writing this seemed less real than writing his fiction.

"Today," he starts the memoir, "the temptation to camouflage oneself in the third person remains great." And later: "I must confess I find it difficult to sound out my past for demonstrable facts. No sooner do I get down to businesss than someone seems to butt in . . . . Oskar must always be first, Oskar knows all and tells all, Oskar laughs at my porous memory."

If drifting cloud cover is the most striking feature of the memoir -- profoundly, in fact, it is the memoir -- some of the story it tells shines through the gaps. "Was it?" gives way to " It was" before slipping back.

When war began, young Grass and his playmates hung out by Danzig's port, avidly following the accounts of German naval victories. One boy kept reporting German defeats; after a while he disappeared with no questions raised.

Answers -- one of the memoir's sharp clarities -- came years later. The boy's family got its news from the BBC; the father, a Socialist, was sent to a camp, then to forced labor on the Russian front. He escaped, returned with the Soviet Army, held a political post until the Communists purged him for opposing their takeover of the Socialist Party. The son worked as an economist for the East German government; unification cost him his job. History, circling repeatedly between tragedy and sour comedy: a scouring Grass touch.

Another vivid section tells of the teenage soldier's flight from the Soviet advance. In the dark woods, frightened by a twig snapping, he sings out part of a nursery rhyme about Hänschen (Little Hans). A voice completes it.

He and the voice's owner, a grizzled veteran, make their way together, eluding the military police that hanged anyone lacking correct movement orders. A Soviet shell explodes; the veteran, grievously wounded, asks his companion to open his trousers to check his vital equipment. Or, clouding the actual words into a more plangently expressive possibility, could the veteran have said: "Check in Hänschen's trousers"? Later, a similar scene takes place in a novel. The problem with "Onion," though, is not that so many memories have gone into the fiction, but that in achieving reality there, they seem so ghostly here.

Grass became a painter and sculptor after working postwar as a stonemason. (He recounts that work with gritty power: chiseling inscriptions off gravestones so they can be re-used. The mortality of immortality.) He intersperses his chapters here with drawings of an onion progressively peeled. Perhaps his sharpest comment on this reluctant memoir is the last drawing. Fully stripped down, an onion is a pile of scattered layers; it has no center.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.