National history− a construct?

Questions in the light of Gunter Grass’s works

 

Our nation has suffered due to its reckless policy makers. This will all go in our history as a saga of unremitting cruelty and inhumanity. The pens are going to document a history which is tainted with blood and tears.

A country’s true condition, in this case its history, can be projected through a powerful piece of fiction as much as through non-fiction. We see other nationalities do the same and achieve wonderful results in the forms of social awareness and increased self-knowledge. How ideal it will be if Pakistan begins to tow the same line of action.

 

The study of literature I feel is not merely an onerous exercise in futility. Once viewed as a tool to galvanise change and positivity in a society, it can do wonders. A country’s true condition, in this case its history, can be projected through a powerful piece of fiction as much as through non-fiction. We see other nationalities do the same and achieve wonderful results in the forms of social awareness and increased self-knowledge. How ideal it will be if Pakistan begins to tow the same line of action. A sense of one’s past equips a people with a renewed energy to perform better for future. Thus avoiding past mistakes. What brought me to these thoughts was a German novel, Cat and Mouse by Gunter Grass.

The author addresses German gradualrise of self worth after the thunderous blow to its national dignity after World War 2. While he looks at the national aspect he looks more closely at the social side. In a society, he proves, an individual is perpetually the mouse while the society is after him like a cat. Imposing various standards of living and earning, that eventually prove vacuous because all such standards lack personal motivation of the individual. And hence, the result is always devoid of contentment. He makes several political statements through this narrative as well.

It is a German literary piece resonant of the evolution of collective German psyche. There is immense ambiguity in it. It is an intentional device to revive the German past of spiritual awakening. It is vital to remember nonetheless that in in the post World War two Germany lagged behind in not just its economic and military advancement but also its spiritual fulfillment. The writers hence such as Gunter Grass then wrote to revive the spirit of the spiritual. The indecision, the inability to remember what exactly happened is the outstanding feature of this narration. In doing so, the loss of connections are what Pilenz, the main character, exhibits and its incoherence is also an image. It is an image of the overpowering disruption caused by Third Reich; so much, that the effort to reconstruct and instill positivity in society became an uphill herculean task.

Immense ambiguity, unreliability of narration as well as deception exists in the narrative. This ambiguity of Pilenz’s narration is a sign of multiple phenomena. Firstly, a person’s past memories are tinted by his or her subjective perceptions. So is the national conscience of the country. It is influenced by the status quo which is selective in its national memory of past. They are very often faulty and miss out on details that others might remember. Both, internationalplayers and people in a society. Secondly, the narrative unreliability is also present because Pilenz, is an image of the society, “the great cat”. Social perceptions of people are also very often variable and inconsistent. Incoherence is a cornerstone of what society believes about different people. Hence, Pilenz’s effort to recreate the past is much less a recollection and more a construction of it. He is basically making a work of art out of his memory: combining fact and fiction.

While Mahlke’s Adam’s Apple is the image of the mouse, the cat is the society around him which wishes to direct his actions and is after him. What must be seen in the following is the unreliability of narration. Pilenz states, “Hotten Sonntag – or was it I?” – rubbed Mahlke down”. Similarly, “Mahlke’s Adam’s apple had become the cat’s mouse. It was so young a cat, and Mahlke’s whats is was so active — in any case the cat leapt at Mahlke’s throat; or one of us caught the cat and held it up to Mahlke’s neck; or I … seized the cat and showed it Mahlke’s mouse; and Joachim Mahlke let out a yell, but suffered only slight scratches”

Joachim Mahlke in the novel is a symbol of the spiritual Catholic who is dedicated to Virgin Mary. While Pilenz feels the void of intellectual inquisition in Germany after war, Mahlke is an image of its fulfillment. When Mahlke goes missing, though fifteen years have passed, Pilenz looks for Mahlke ever since and everywhere he can possibly appear; he has never given up hope that his friend will “resurface.” The quest for Mahlke is also a quest for true history, actual past uninterrupted by the Nazi propaganda machine. The ambiguity in memory is the stumbling block to this quest. Cat and Mouse is dedicated, as it were, to resuscitating the spirit of Mahlke and also in the process trying to revive the German art and spirituality through the use of ambiguous connections aimed at an unclear history. Ambiguity is employed as a potent tool to address the lack of clarity in social conscience. Ambiguity is used to diffuse the confusion in real life.

In Crabwalk, which is another novel by Grass- the part of Danzig trilogy- we find that the author wants the German nation to address their past and pain to move forward. He says, it is a constant “scuttling backward to move forward”. The revisiting of the past is in a way its construction as we see it happening inCat and Mouse. Pilenz’s narration is as much a construction as it is Tulla Pokriefke’s in Crabwalk. The authenticity is challenged and the ambiguity and unreliability of narrative is consistent. Hence, the author says, “No I never did have a proper father, just interchangeable phantoms”. This is a statement that he never had a history, a fine identity to attach himself to. History was contorted and ambiguous so were his origins.

“Politics of the Past: The Use and Abuse of History” is foreworded by a beautiful quote written by Martin Schulz. He says, “Each country and every generation has to deal with their own past, but this should not be done by promoting myths or by using politically motivated interpretations of history to attack opponents. We inherit the collective memory and the history our predecessors left for us and we should use this appropriately and honestly. As a German, I feel strongly that I have to live with the horror of the Third Reich and Auschwitz, the lowest point in human history” The German guilt remains and hence it needs to be addressed as Grass says.

In the same vein, Eshel Amir writes, “Gunter Grass’s fictionalised historical narratives not only invoke the past, they also unfold- through their latent referent- a Hegelian concept of history as a cohesive, intelligible process composed of an endless chain of cause and effect leading to a breach in civilisation- Auschwitz- and beyond. The narration’s aim is thus not just to present actual and fictive events, but to uncover the mechanisms behind the larger historical process in order to illuminate it and thus liberate his readers from it”. From this we know that Grass’s technique to uncover truth through ambiguity and deception of language is a mere tool to guide and educate the reader about history and its farce.

Pakistanis have for too long been deceived by their ruling masters. They were never friends or sincere confidants in whose hands the nation could entrust their worries and sleep over them. They were rather promoters of hate, extremism, hunger, need and desperation in the society. And to top it all, the most ruthless all heinous crimes against humanity are given a cover of religion and bizarre reasoning. Our nation has suffered due to its reckless policy makers. This will all go in our history as a saga of unremitting cruelty and inhumanity. The pens are going to document a history which is tainted with blood and tears.

Fatima Zubair

The writer is a freelance columnist and author of the bestseller “A Child of the New Millennium, Stories and Essays from Pakistan”, launched in Kinnaird College for Women in 2015. She writes on international affairs, literature and humanities, holistically.



One Comment;

  1. Shahmil Ahmed said:

    Enlightening! Thanks Fatima i love your write ups. They are loaded with information and quintessential lessons.

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