Literary reaction to the year 2000 was muted, as far as I can recall. Gunter Grass, however, decided, that, if he could not commemorate the millennium, he could at least acknowledge the previous century. In 1999 he published a book with just such a title, My Century, a collection of one hundred short pieces, typically two to three pages, each focusing on one year, beginning in 1900 and ending in the present.
The conceit is a simple one, its main danger being that it seem too schematic. Grass begins with a major historical event, the Boxer Rebellion, told from the point of view of one of the soldiers:
“For the sake of order the Boxers were rounded up in the square at Tiananmen gate, right in front of the wall dividing the Manchu city from the ordinary part. Their pigtails were tied to one another… Then they were either executed in groups or had their heads chopped off one by one.”
(In choosing this scene Grass immediately evokes echoes of the much more recent events of 1989 in Tiananmen Square). It’s likely, however, that assuming a character involved in a moment of history time after time (times a hundred) might quickly lessen the effect. Grass has no intention of doing so and quickly wrong- foots the reader with the opening of the next section:
“I have always enjoyed rummaging in junk, and late in the fifties…”
What follows is the discovery of postcards franked 1945, but describing the opening of the Wuppertal Suspension Railway – which occurred in 1901. Thankfully Grass’ intention is to use a variety of methods and voices to recall the years. This is particularly effective when it comes to years which have already been well served by literature, such as those during the two world wars. 1914, for example, begins:
“Finally, in the mid-sixties, after two of my colleagues had tried and failed several times, I managed to bring the two elderly gentlemen together.”
The two elderly gentlemen are Erich Maria Remarque and Ernst Junger, German writers particularly associated with the First World War. Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front has long been regarded as the German equivalent of Wilfred Owen’s poetry, exemplifying the pity and suffering of war; Junger’s Storm of Steel, conversely, has often been seen to glorify the war. Chapters 1914 through to 1918 tell the story of their meeting, as if Grass is seeking to represent the full complexity of the German view of the war rather than give us the usual set-pieces. Grass uses a similar approach to the years 1939-45 when he focuses on the reminiscences of a war reporter.
Elsewhere there are some wonderful character based stories. 1946 tells of the rebuilding of Berlin:
“Brick dust. Brick dust everywhere, let me tell you. In the air you breathe, he clothes you wear, between your teeth – you name it. But don’t think that got us down. Not us women.”
The story of the separation between East and West is touched on a number of times, including 1951’s letter to Volkswagen asking whether workers for the car manufacturer now in the GDR are still eligible for the car they had paid towards throughout their employment. Later, in 1974, we meet a prisoner watching the World Cup match between East and West Germany:
“Which side was one for? Which side was I or I for? Whom was I to cheer on? What conflict broke out in me, what forces pulled at me when Sparwasser shot his goal?”
Grass also includes occasional autobiographical chapters describing his own life during that particular year, though as a public figure in Germany this goes some way to capturing the feeling of the times as well.
The book obviously has a German focus – no bad thing considering how central Germany has been to the history of Europe, and to a lesser extent the world, during the 20th century – but global events are not ignored. 1982, for example, revolves around the Falklands War, and 1991 consists of a discussion of the Gulf War, and the way it was reported. I found My Century to be a fascinating collection (perhaps collage is the best description) of continual surprises, sometimes revealing the unknown, at others looking at the well-known from a new angle.