A few months ago, I read Gunter Grass’ Peeling the Onion and Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express. The former, a memoir, delves into the passage of time, the retracing of memory, a coming to terms with the past. The latter, a travelogue, comes off more as a journey through space, an exploration of new frontiers, a confrontation with the other.
If both books deal with memory and experience, Peeling the Onion trains its focus on the distant history, on a now sometimes obscure, at times undoubtedly painful past: “Memory likes to play hide-and-seek, to crawl away. It tends to hold forth, to dress up, often needlessly. Memory contradicts itself; pendant that it is, it will have its way.”
The Old Patagonian Express, on the other hand, deals with the experience of the new: “the waking in the morning, the progress from the familiar to the slightly odd, to the rather strange, to the totally foreign, and finally to the outlandish. The journey, not the arrival, matters; the voyage, not the landing”:
Slapping my pockets to make sure my ball point and passport were safe, I went downstairs, past my mother’s hiccupping cuckoo clock, and then to Wellington Circle to catch the train. It was a morning of paralyzing frost, the perfect day to leave for South America.
For some, this was the train to Sullivan Square or Milk Street or, at the very most, Orient Heights; for me, it was the train to Patagonia.
Grass compares memory to an onion “that wishes to be peeled so we can read what is laid bare letter by letter. It is seldom unambiguous and often in mirror-writing or otherwise disguised… Beneath its dry and crackly outer skin we find another, more moist layer, that once detached, reveals a third, beneath, which a fourth and fifth wait whispering.”
What we are handed over is “only the most acceptable part of a memory, the part that sounds plausible on paper, and vaunts details to be as precise as a photograph…” Peeling the Onion thus presents itself as an unveiling of that concealed part. Its approach is one of introspection, an unraveling of the innermost recesses of the mind.
The voice of the author’s conscience weighs heavily on Peeling the Onion. This is often expressed in an ironic mocking tone that attacks what Grass considers, with hindsight from the present, as follies of the past. In self-depreciating terms, Grass eagerly celebrates the loss of his early scribbling as follows:
For how embarrassing it would be if the preadolescent’s gushings included a poem, dated April 20, influenced by the panegyric style of such Hitler Youth bards as Menzel, Baumann, or von Schirarch and celebrating the Fuhrer in hymn-like terms reflecting the young poet’s unbending faith… Or if some racist claptrap had found its way into a passage in my first novel at the expense of the poor Kashubians: A long-faced knight beheads round-faced Slavs by the dozen.
There is an undercurrent of censure of the embrace of Nazism and fanaticism that Grass felt swept the German population in this time:
As a member of the Hitler Youth I was, in fact, a Young Nazi. A believer till the end. Not what one would call fanatical, not leading the pack, but with my eye, as if by reflex, fixed on the flag that was to mean “more than death” to us, I kept pace in rank and file. No doubts clouded my faith; nothing subversive like the clandestine distribution of leaflets can let me off the hook; no Goring joke made me suspicious. No, I saw my fatherland threatened, surrounded by enemies.
Paul Theroux meanwhile centers his efforts at highlighting the multifarious ways in which US imperialist interests and the domestic elites dominate the Latin Americas:
This was a lush place – bananas and coffee growing together, cultivation as far as the eye could see. Where were the owners of these estates? I saw only the peasants; small huts, pigs, skinny horses, people living dustily among garbage…
There is no element of apology for a shameful past that others would rather forget as in Grass, but an honest rage against the injustices and inequalities of the rulingorder. The dominant mood is not one of lament but that of condemnation. And in this exposition, the figure of the train proves central for Theroux just as the onion does for Grass:
I had been in Latin America long enough by now to know that there was a class stigma attached to trains. Only the semidestitute, the limpers, the barefoot ones, the Indians, and the half-cracked yokels took the train, or knew anything about them. For this reason, it was a good introduction to the social miseries and scenic splendors of the continent.
In this context, The Old Patagonian Express sets itself in the wide and expansive reaches of the Americas. It sets out to locate the sameness and the difference of the Latin American countries Theroux passes by. Peeling the Onion meanwhile is deeply embedded in the narrow limits of the European subcontinent. Grass peers at the heart of the German soul.
While Grass gives accounts of what he wrote throughout his youth, Theroux talks more about the books he read while travelling in the train. Both conclude with a void: the absence of any more layers to peel from the onion of memory in Grass and the nothingness of the barren landscape of Patagonia in Theroux:
I knew I was nowhere, but the most surprising thing of all was that I was still in the world after all still in the world after all this time, on dot at the lower part of the map. The landscape had gaunt expression, but I could not deny that it had reasonable features and that I existed in it. This was a discovery – the look of it. I thought: Nowhere is a place.