Ever since the revelation that Grass was a member of Germany's Waffen SS during his youth, the jury's been out on his sin. And the jury that I've been reading has been leaning in favour of convicting him of having committed the unforgivable. I've seen references throughout the media to the news, and they're overwhelmingly condemnatory; the conclusion has been that Grass is a hypocrite, that his reputation can never be redeemed.Enter Marlon James.
Far more sensible has been the reactions from the Mayor of Gdansk himself who said, â€œBy his actions, he has already paid for the mistakes of his youth.â€ Thatâ€™s the crucial thing to remember here. Grass was SIX when Hitler came to power. OF COURSE he would be a member of the SS, what greater ambition would a child growing up in the very shadow of Hitler have? Grass says he kept silent on his past because he was ashamed. I see nothing shocking in this. Iâ€™d be more horrified if he wasnâ€™t so ashamed of his past that he tried to hide it. As for all the people who are calling for him to return his Nobel Prize and whatever honour he has gotten please, spare me. Knut Hamsun never regretted his Nazi sympathies and he still has his. I would think that a man who was in the elite SS going on to become the very conscience of his nation, would speak to the very best of humanity, not the worst. Thereâ€™s no getting away from the contradiction of a man forcing a nation to confront truth when he could not confront his own. But that again brings us back to the ever-wise Winterson: the man needs forgiveness. Lord knows he has mine.
I have to confess that my own perspective is far closer to James' own than any of the others I've read. In part it's because I agree with him about what heroism is, and I don't make the mistake of confusing human beings with God. In part it's because I think â€” again like James â€” that sometimes it takes far more courage and conviction to take a stand against what one once was than to have condemned it for all of one's life. And in part it's because I believe that the process of forgiveness and atonement and redemption â€” as unpopular as those ideas are these days â€” is a complex one that never really ends. As recovering addicts know, one is never cured of an addiction; one is recovering as long as one lives. It's the old idea of temptation, which new translations have airbrushed out of the Lord's Prayer; the strength of human goodness can't really be measured until it's tested by the strength of human evil as well.Some other links:Austin Bay BlogBooks, InqThe Elegant VariationWhat I'm finding interesting is that some of the more forgiving perspectives are coming from people who live with fear, discrimination, hate and prejudice on a daily basis, rather than from people who don't. People of colour, from so-called "developing" nations, people whose cultures' existences depend on the decisions of one or two leaders of (mostly) irresponsibly superpowers, tend to be more forgiving of Grass than those people whose cultures shape the world.Perhaps it's because it's reassuring for us to realize that evil can change. And perhaps it's disconcerting for others to note that behind every good deed may lie a fatal flaw.We may be forgiving because we grew up with that knowledge.