Crabwalk, Paperback Book
3.5 out of 5 (2 ratings)


In this new novel Grass examines a subject that has long been taboo - the sufferings of the Germans during the Second World War.

He explores the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the deadliest maritime disaster of all time, and the repercussions upon three generations of a German family.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber
  • Publication Date:
  • ISBN: 9780571216529



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An frustratingly short book by the heavyweight German novelist Gunter Grass. Incredible then that this book should stretch across three generations, illuminate a variety of attitudes of German people to the role of their country in the Second World War and drive home the human misery caused by the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German cruise ship turned refugee carrier that was attacked on January 30, 1945 by a Soviet submarine: more than nine thousand people drowned, including four thousand children, qualifying the episode as the worst maritime disaster in history. Only a writer with the skill of Grass could pack all that into a mere two hundred and thirty-four pages.

Review by

The cover says that Gunter Grass won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but that was in 2000, and he wrote this book in 2002. The cover sheet says of him that he ‘is Germany’s most celebrated contemporary writer.’The book is a fictional recreation of the events of the Second World War’s worst naval disaster – the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by a Russian submarine on January 30 1945, three months before the end of the war in Europe. The exact number of dead in this disaster is unknown as the ship, overcrowded with refugees from the advancing Russians as well as some fleeing soldiers, had not been able to keep track of all those crowding aboard before it set sail in the Baltic. The estimates, however, are that it may have been carrying as many as 10,000 passengers, of whom only about 1,000 survived the sinking by three torpedos. The story is ‘polyphonic’ in the sense that Milan Kundera writes about in ‘The art of the novel’ inasmuch as there are three parallel stories:-the murder of the German leader of the Nazi Party branch in Switzerland, Wilhelm Gustloff, by a Jew, David Frankfurter who is gaoled and then goes to Israel after the war;-the story of a cruise ship launched in 1936 months after Gustloff and named after him until its sinking in 1945; and-the story of the narrator’s mother, a passenger on the fatal last voyage of the Wilhelm Gustloff, and who gave birth to her son on a rescue boat on the night of the sinking. Also in this story is the narrator’s son from his broken marriage who becomes a neo-Nazi.The characters in the first two existed, but have had their story embellished in the telling; those in the third are entirely fictional and represent a allegory for the post-war journey of the German people – the Mother who can never forget the sinking, hates the Russians, but becomes a willing Stalinist in eastern Germany; her son, who fled to the West and becomes a liberal and a disappointment to his mother (not because of his fleeing to the West, in that she helped him; but because of his failure to share her obsession and write its story; and the grandson, who resents the weakness of his father and becomes the zealot who not only tells the story via internet hate pages, but also reprises the story of the original murder.The stories weave together probably in the only way they could – in the way of the ‘crabwalk’, the title of the book. This is how Grass describes the ‘crabwalk’:“But I’m still not sure how to go about (the telling of the story); should I do as I was taught and unpack one life at a time, in order, or do I have to sneak up on time in a crabwalk, seeming to go backward but actually scuttling sideways, and thereby working my way forward fairly rapidly?”Which is all to say that the events of the three stories are interwoven throughout the story in backwards, forwards and sideways motions. The story is interesting enough, though I think the section in the third quarter of the book which deals mainly with the ship’s fateful voyage is somewhat belaboured. There is also an interesting exploration of the inherent capacity of human beings to be contradictory rather than coherent – the mother who despises the Russians but cries at Stalin’s death, the liberal journalist son who never adequately explains the length of time he worked for the feral conservative Springer newspaper group, the neo-Nazi grandson who hates Jews and praises Israel and is accused by skin-heads of being a ‘Russian lover’ – all these are conveyed quite effectively by way of filling out the picture of the complex German psyche in the post-war period and, in doing so, the complexity of the human psyche generally. On the back cover, Sarah Schaeffer of the New Statesman is quoted:“Grass could scarcely be delving deeper into the German soul and challenging its demons to do their worst”while Tom Rosenthal, of the Daily Mail, writes that the book is for anyone ‘who wants to understand that great but deeply flawed country’. But it is not a moving book. I didn’t finish it feeling any particular empathy for the main protagonists. And the detailing of the horrible events of the sinking, which contain many facts (real events from actual reports) are contained with a sense of dispassion while at the same time reported as having (understandably) traumatized the mother:“But even worse, Mother said, was the fate of the children: ‘They all skidded off the ship the wrong way round, headfirst. So there they was, floating in them bulky life jackets, their little legs poking up in the air …’”This is a deeply disturbing image but somehow its power gets lost in the subsequent continuation of the psycho-emotional complexities of mother and son divided by a chasm of history.I give the book three out of five – worth reading if you have left the book you really want to read behind.

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