Günter Grass 1927 – 2015
Two key lights turned out in just one week, and we’re left to ponder who they were and what they’ve left. Left is perhaps the key word, for they represented a kind of athletic, poetic leftism that seems to be fading from our world.
Grass was by far the more complex figure. We now know that as a young teen in the most horrendous period of the Nazi regime, he was an enthusiastic member of the SS, a group known for the worst violence and horror. What must he have seen (and done) that in just so many years after the war he penned his most famous text so much against war, violence, authoritarianism and all the accumulated ills his book maps out as the historical sources that made the Nazi phenomenon a national fantasy and nightmare. He lived fearful of the horror’s return, perhaps because he recognized in the young self he’d been the seeds of what was to flourish and poison all. So with German re-unification his fears grew, so with the emergence of the most reactionary trends in Zionism he spoke out even fearful now that his hidden story was revealed that he’d be taken for an unreconstructed anti-semite. For all the creative limitations of much of his later work, I remember his playful plays and above all his rather brave and brilliant attack against one of my great cultural icons, Bertolt Brecht, when, in a play entitled, The Plebians Rehearse the Uprising, he portrays Brecht’s Stalinist antipathy to an East German workers’ revolt taking place as the master playwright is staging his own supposedly left wing version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.
But what about Grass’s own limitations and that nagging secret of his SS youth? Perhaps his secret propelled him to smash icons as a way of castigating himself. Perhaps it was the secret which lay at the center of his restless politics, and his creation of such a range of powerful images in his writing as well as his art work — the secret behind one the most mercurial literary figures in the second half of the twentieth century.
Eduardo Galeano 1940 – 2015
Galeano became a sizeable cultural icon in our Latin Americanist world — an heir to dependency theory and a kind of leftism that was more independent if less brilliant than that of Neruda or his countryman Benedetti. Half journalist, half poet, he was hardly capable of a sustained novel but shone as an informal essayist, and rose to his greatest fame as he wrote his flaming denunciatory history of the Latin world and then his four-volume pastiche telling the same story through poetic tropes and quasi-testimonial fragments.
We had something in common in that respect and commented on the similarity between his project and my own four-volume Central American Quartet, collage histories of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. We did have some time together, especially after Lou Rosenbaum of Guild Books left the city. And it fell to me to chauffeur him around, drink with him and watch him watching the Anglo and Latin American worlds of Chicago. Once I had to present him in an event arranged I remember by Chicago’s Pablo Neruda Center. And one at the 1989 Managua bookfair commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution, he and Ernesto Cardenal defended my Central American Quartet against Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who told me that my work, by taking fragments of poems by writers great and less great was an affront to all poets and to poetry itself. “My god,” Galeano jibed, “he’s just doing what we all do.“ I will always thank him for that.
Of course, Galeano was more loved by Anglo-Americans than by the academic intellectuals of the Latin American literary left. Jean Franco gave him hell in public for his simplifications and what she considered his condescending inclusion of women in his vision of history. Others complained that he pandered to a kind of anti-Americanism that passed for leftism in certain circles. He brushed them all off. “They’re critics — and critics are always jealous of writers,” he once told me, perhaps knowing I was one of them. My son revered him because he was one of the writers who loved football. I guess many will remember him with great affection and admiration in spite of all the criticism.
Two figures who are now gone. As many lights turn out. And we have to ask where we are and what’s left of the left? And what will be left in the years we’ve still left?
Marc Zimmerman is author of U.S. Literature (1992), Defending their own in the Cold: the Cultural Turns of U.S. Puerto Ricans (2011); he has edited volumes on Latin American/Latino transnational processes, Latinos in U.S. cities and Chicano art in Mexican Chicago. He is currently developing essays on Chicago Latino writers and artists, as well as stories on his Latino and Latin American experiences.