a vast field

Sergio Sister, 1970, ecoline and crayon on paper, pencil and felt-tip pen, 32x45 cm


Commentary on the novel by Günter Grass

a vast field, although inserted in the picaresque tradition and full of literary references and allusions, it is first and foremost a political novel of rare boldness: the 37 chapters, organized into five books, constitute paintings in which Grass projects and prismatizes an extremely critical view of German reunification. For this is the central theme of the novel, the line of flight that organizes a series of seemingly unrelated episodes, which extend from December 1989 to October 1991. But for this, Günter Grass builds a broad and complex narrative perspective, since events surrounding reunification are paralleled with German unification in the 1870s under the aegis of Bismarck (sometimes going back to the revolutionary movement of 1848).

This historical view is closely related to the conception of the main character: Theo Wuttke, better known by the nickname Fonty, is a kind of reincarnation of the great German realist Theodor Fontane (1819-1898). Born on the same day and in the same city, but exactly 100 years later, Fonty's life experiences faithfully reproduce the main facts of the biography of the “immortal”, as Fontane is mentioned throughout the book. This correspondence covers details of the family constellation, political vicissitudes such as participation in the military occupation of France (under Bismarck and under Hitler) or involvement with secret services, an irresistible attraction to Scotland and even illness or the less than happy celebration of the seventieth birthday. It should also be noted that the narrative instance engendered by Grass, the “we of the archive” that opens the novel and articulates its various dimensions (sometimes an “I” stands out from the collective, but without acquiring clarity for the reader), refers to the Fontane Archive, still based in the city of Potsdam.

Thus, a vast field is also a novel about the life and work of Fontane, the author of ballads and travelogues who only at the age of 60 made his debut as a novelist, producing from then on true landmarks of German and even European realism, as is the case of novels The Stechlin e Effi Briest [1]. From the latter, filmed by Fassbinder, Grass extracted the title of his book: "a vast field" is the expression with which old Briest, Effi's father (in a way the during Prussian work of Madame Bovary or Ana Karenina), systematically seeks to avoid all the thorniest subjects. (Of course, in Grass, “vast field” harbors a surreptitious reference to the territorial dimensions of the new Germany.)

But this Fonty, bearer of so much historical and literary tradition, is not allowed to wander alone through Berlin enlarged by the fall of the wall; Grass gives him the company of a “daily shadow” that owes its existence to a literary source: it is a certain Hoftaller, an authorized re-edition of the character Tallhover, who in the homonymous novel by Hans-Joachim Schädlich (1986) represents the perennial secret and espionage services. Linked by an obscure pact in which associations with the classic pact between Faust and Mephistopheles resound, but also suggesting, in undertakings that end pathetically, the duo Bouvard and Pécuchet, they visit from within (naturally against the grain of the official perspective) the various stages of the recent German history: the transformation of the wall into remembrances in the opening chapter; the currency union at the end of the first book; the privatization process in the chapters of the fourth book that take place at the headquarters of the Trust Society (“Treuhand”), through which the state-owned companies of the former German Democratic Republic are privatized (or rather given away, observes Grass); the official reunification ceremony at the end of the third book. In this last episode they are joined by Madeleine Aubron, Fonty's illegitimate granddaughter (for Fontane also had a similar experience) who appears unexpectedly in the middle of the novel, bringing with her the French vision of reunification.

With this novel, Grass demonstrates his little appreciation for that old law of the epic genre, already illustrated by Iliad, which recommends placing the narrated stories in the past – and the more past they are, the better for the narrator, that “whispering evocator of the imperfect”, added Thomas Mann. Above this law, what matters to him is the writer's right to meddle in the history of his time, to be a participant and uncomfortable contemporary. Get involved like this, in your new and put, through the shady meanders of the Fiduciary Society, seeking to unravel the predatory mentality usually rationalized by economic ideologies: “In 70/71, it was no different”, one reads in the historical parallel drawn by Fonty in the 20th chapter. “German unification is always the unification of the crooks and the greedy. Only then there was the fourth class, that of workers. There was still hope in that.” And further on, Hoftaller's outburst: “Privatization, although associated with the Devil, and now the Devil has put his horns out!”.

It is natural that Grass's literary resistance is also confronted with postmodern theories in high quotation in current university life, exposing its caricatural feature, at the end of chapter 14, with some precise brushstrokes; and at the same time tells, through letters exchanged with Fonty, the tragic story of the Marxist Jew Freundlich, a professor in Jena whose intellectual production is evaluated and rejected by an academic commission more “in tune” with the current spirit of the times.

Through the profusion of historical parallels and literary references, a vast field it is not an easy read. It should be noted, however, that the Brazilian reader faces additional difficulties. The sparse notes in the translation are not very illuminating, starting with the one that explains the first mention of Effi Briest with a vague remark about "Hölderlin, Goethe etc". Another note on the pun with the “Kantian imperative of categorical cowardice” could be more enlightening if I added that the writer referred to in the context is called Hermann Kant, a beneficiary of high positions in the GDR who did not exactly excel in courage.

It is also up to the reader to find out what the Stasi is, an abbreviated acronym for the then omnipresent secret service of the GDR. Among the translation problems, some the attentive reader will be able to solve on their own, such as a wrong date on p. 52, which pushes German unification into the 18th century. This reader may be surprised by the low costs of the first stage of reunification, since the Brazilian edition lacks another 24 billion marks (page 121); it is also surprising that the names of Rosa Luxemburg and Heine were so requested to rename streets and squares in cities of the former GDR (p.139). When faced with “workers like Stirn and Faust” (p. 434), the reader must understand something like “intellectual and manual workers”, since it is an expression with the nouns forehead (head) e Faust (fish).

Marcus Mazzari Professor at the Department of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature at USP. Author, among other books, of learning labyrinths (Publisher 34).

Originally published on Folha de S. Paul, Journal of Reviews, on October 10, 1998.


Gunter Grass. a vast field. Translation: Lya Luft. Rio de Janeiro, Record, 1998, 616 pages (https://amzn.to/457HPhm).

Editor's Note

[1] On the life and work of Theodor Fontane cf. Arlenice Almeida da Silva. “Effi Briest”. In: The Earth is Round [https://aterraeredonda.com.br/effi-briest/].

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