The Box

There's a famous, and famously long, word in German for "coming to terms with the past." Vergangenheitsbewältigung has long been associated, at least where literature is concerned, with authors like Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass, and the latter's newest book is no exception. But the past that Grass seeks to work through in The Box: Tales from the Darkroom is less Germany's than that of his own family, or at least a fictional facsimile thereof. Told largely through the voices of his eight children as they recall their lives at the margins of their father's creativity, The Box picks up where Grass's memoir Peeling the Onion abruptly left off—with his life as a writer and a father.

 

The conceit that structures The Box—and it is a conceit—is that of an Agfa Special box camera that the children believe has magical properties. Throughout their respective upbringings, across multiple houses under the eyes of multiple mothers, their father's friend and faithful assistant Marie—Mariechen in the German diminutive—would carry the camera, documenting not only every turn in their childhoods but also their innermost desires and imaginings. The Box inhabits a fluid space between fiction and memoir (not least, the children's names are fictionalized and the narrator-cum-patriach goes unnamed altogether). The conversations between the children were, we're told, recorded over the course of several dinners, but it's impossible to know where Grass's memory ends and fantasy begins. Perhaps they're one and the same. Whether capturing something as unlikely as a dog's solitary journeys throughout the Berlin metro system or, no less implausibly, a "proper family" together at an amusement park, the camera gives them what their father never could: "Only Mariechen has the ability to suspend and reverse the natural course of time. Suspicions captured in snapshots. Longings pursued and pounced on by a box that had some screws loose but could reveal hidden states of affairs."

 

Grass's works tend to be governed by a central organizing metaphor: the box camera in The Box, the onion in Peeling the Onion, the tin drum in… you get the idea. These metaphors have their uses—they lend a kind of mysticism to the ordinary—but Grass's repetitions can resemble the incessant pattering of Oskar Matzerath in their tirelessness. By the end of The Box, one never wants to hear about this magical camera again, so overbearing does the image of Marie in her darkroom become. In fact, the most revealing moments in The Box are those that step outside the entrapment of metaphor into simple, unadorned memory, uncorroborated by the snap of an ever-present shutter.  

 

The Box reads, on its surface, as a gesture of penitence. Each chapter of dialogue between the children is framed by Grass himself, setting the scene and signaling the extent to which, even in giving them a voice, his children remain at the mercy of his writerly project. "Now the inadequate father hopes the children will feel some compassion. For they cannot sweep aside his life, nor he theirs, pretending that none of it ever happened," he writes. Yet as much as he tries to hold himself to account, what really interests Grass is Grass. Marie and her camera are meant to give us a window into his creative process, into how he converts the ready world into traceable motifs. As one of the children observes, "[H]e shows up in all his own books, sometimes as the main characters, sometimes in a minor role, in one costume or another, as if the book was always about him."

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