Günter Grass, the German writer awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999 for his collective body of work is best known for his literary masterpiece The Tin Drum which was published in 1959. The book was adapted into a film in 1979 and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Nearly 50 years later in 2006 as Grass was approaching his 80th birthday, he published Peeling the Onion – an autobiographical novel that begins at the end of his childhood when World War II broke out and concludes in 1959 with the publication of his first and most famous novel. In 2008, Grass published The Box, a novel considered to be a continuation of where Peeling the Onion ended although the author claims the story is a work of autobiographical fiction.
In The Box, an elderly father of eight children brings his children together as adults to talk about their childhood. There are the four children from his first marriage – twins Pat and Jorge, Lara and Taddel who collectively form a group known as the eldest ones. Daughter Lena is the fifth child and a product of a brief affair with a mistress. The sixth child, another daughter named Nana was also the result of a liaison with another woman. The youngest children – two boys named Jasper and Paul – joined the family when the father took a second wife.
There is a bit of the child in every adult and this is no more visible than when the children gather and “speak as if bent on regressing, as if they could capture and hold fast for the shadowy outlines of the past, as if time could stand still, as if childhood never ended….insisting their feelings are still hurt” for what each did to the other. But, the 80-year old father is not that interested in the feelings between the children; his focus is limited to how their respective recollections relate to him as the talented author who spent most of his time writing, the artist who couldn’t be disturbed, the man who avoided conflict and telling anyone what was going on; the father who could tell stories but was not keen on playing with his children; and the father that each child wished he could have to himself but couldn’t.
The Box takes place in Germany – primarily Berlin – where the grown children meet at various times and locations to discuss themselves, their father, their mothers, and Mariechen (Marie) – a woman 10 years older than their father who was somewhat of a muse in that she made it possible for the father to write despite how chaotic and dysfunctional his personal life was. She arranged everything and the children say “she was part of our patchwork family from the beginning….she clung to father like a burr” although they all remember her fondly for she provided the link to their father. In one child’s words, Marie was “a strong woman at the helm” that allowed the father to “devote himself to whatever he happens to have in the works” while life went on for the rest. And, in another child’s words “Had she and her box not existed, the father would know less about his children, would have lost the thread too often, would not have found his love through the back door…”
Marie was always taking pictures for the father – things he needed for his books or things he wished for” which led her to take snapshots of the family members with an Agfa Box No. 54, which is referred throughout the book as “the box.” As the author points out, the box was ” the first camera bought by ordinary Germans” because its slogan was ” Get more out of life with photography,” – an irony given the 6 x 9 photographs that came out of her darkroom were different from the snapshots she took.
Marie claimed “my box takes pictures of things that aren’t there.” And it sees things that weren’t there. Or shows things you’d never in your wildest dreams imagine. It’s all-seeing, my box.” And, the visions the photographs provided were for the father so he knew what his kids wished for or where their dreams would lead them. Marie, through her photographs linked each child to a father who didn’t take the time to know his children while they were growing up.
The story isn’t so much about the children as it is about the father. Artists and especially very talented artists are generally self-centered and have people – a wife, a husband, a partner, a muse – who take care of life’s details for them so they can work. In The Box, the father does not know how to drive a car, much less pedal a bicycle. He chooses strong women who take care of him, his children, and his needs. In his words, the father says “Of all the women I’ve loved, or still love, Mariechen is the only one who doesn’t demand even a smidgen of me, but gives everything.”
Throughout the book, it is often very difficult to discern which adult child is speaking but it doesn’t really matter because they are all telling a story that relates back to the life of their father. Halfway through the book, the reader realizes The Box is really the story of a non-attentive father seeking compassion in old-age; a man who recognizes his shortcomings but could no more change his ways than a bird could choose not to fly for his very success is due to his selfish devotion to what came natural – writing – and the people who enabled him.