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Günter Grass

Prince of Asturias Award for Literature 1999

In thanking you on behalf of the other award-winners and on my own behalf for the honour bestowed on us by the Prince of Asturias in the presence of Your Majesty, I search - albeit clumsily at first - for some common factor that would unite us all, working as we do in such diverse disciplines - for the brief space of a thank you speech. An event that is imminent for the world as a whole immediately springs to mind: both a century and a millennium are drawing to a close. As award-winners we are the taillights, so to speak, of a horrible period of history that still clings to its dogmas. However, whatever country we are from, the past refuses to draw to a close, and will trap us time after time in its web, so one fears that everything that has been repressed and hastily eliminated will pay no heed to the century change. Something that - in the guise of the Millennium Bug - can lead the most complex computer systems to disaster is incapable of disturbing History and its repercussions. History defies numbers. Our history will continue to cast its shadow till well into the next century. We cannot escape from her; she turns us into ruminants; and whatever half-digested matter we regurgitate will still block the way for the present generation and the next: excrement whose dried-out crust we can read from.

I am getting onto my subject at this point: Literature and History. Since writing became a conscious process for me - and fifty years have elapsed along the way - History, especially German history, has confronted me. There was no way it could be avoided. Even my boldest artistic escapades led me back time after time to its meandering course. From my first novel, "The Tin Drum", to the most recent product of my fancy, which goes by the possessive name of "My Century", I have been its rebellious servant. The destruction and loss of Danzig, the city of my birth, unleashed a mass of epic material that was no doubt tainted to the tiniest narrative detail by a petit-bourgeois environment and a degenerate air of Catholicism. Yet even as the daily boredom and endless family parties went on, History was manifesting itself incessantly, initially in the victory proclamations and then in hushed up admissions of troop retreat. No idyll, however pleasantly cocooned, was safe from the incursions of History. Private affairs only occurred if called upon to do so. History continuously, resoundingly set its dates. And only by clever literary devices could its dictates be challenged with a counter-text: speeding time up here, stretching it out there, juxtaposing simultaneous action, changing perspective or blatantly peeling back the layers of the (proverbial) onion.

That is how Literature exposes History's other face. It shows you the trivial yet destructive events that occur behind the facade sustained by the State. In Literature, the grandiose ends up being ridiculous, big becomes diminutive, and as in Andersen's tale "The Emperors New Clothes", the child can see all majesty stark naked. What I am referring to here is the narrative perspective that goes from the bottom upwards and over the table edge; it is the viewpoint which is amoral because it is naïve, that cannot be deceived. In this way, the supposedly significant course of history ends up in the sewage water that the shoreless sea of the Absurd feeds upon.

Such a devastating narrative style has its tradition. Here in Spain, where Moorish and Iberian culture wore each other down and then rekindled a centuries-old love-hate relationship, a genre of novel was written, born out of the contradiction of the two realities, that turned the social outcast into a hero; and was then called "the picaresque novel" by scholars of literature - who pin a name on everything. The "pícaro" (social outcast) portrayed the world and its hustle and bustle in concave and convex mirrors. By way of lies, he shed light on the truth. He respected nothing. Any academic paper was worn away to nothing by such irreverence. It caused thunderous laughter that even shook the powers-that-be. Amongst the many writers of this school - homeless and therefore in no way academic, alternating between Morocco and Andalucía - one (writer) grew up called Cervantes, whose hero, Don Quixote, is still to this day producing literary offspring; offspring who are outlandish, like him, and who show up the hidden absurd meaning of reality and the true smell of the absurd. He is the father of this European literary genre within which Voltaire's "Candide" broke down and analysed "the best of worlds"; to which Sterne's "Tristam Shandy" owes his question about whether the clock has been wound up; in which Charles de Coster's "Thyl Ulenspiegel", fighting for Flemish freedom against the invading Spanish powers, plays the role of the astute buffoon; in which Grimmelshausen attempts to have his hero, Simplicissimus by name, survive in different armies. What would Germans know about the horrors of the Thirty Year War if Simplex, with his bottom-up approach, had not narrated the events that historians in their diligence have ordered into the dates of History for us, in a style that is as precise as it is dead?

Eye-witness accounts of Literature have deep roots. They give the floor to the losers, to those who do not make History but to whom History inevitably happens, because its dictates turns them into either the guilty or the victims, supporter or persecuted. I would know little or nothing of the complex relationships between friends and enemies during the Spanish Civil war if George Orwell, in "Homage to Catalonia", had not testified to the system of terror of the Communists, whose commissaires did away with numerous anarchists and socialists behind the battle lines. Writers from around the world accompanied, narratively-speaking, the struggle and fall of the Republic. It is difficult to come up with one other event of this century that has been portrayed by so many voices in the mirror of Literature, although the voices of Spanish writers, long stifled by censorship, could only be heard in Spain after some delay. Only now, in this literary autumn, have they started the publication of the six-volume epic poem in novel form, "The Magic Labyrinth", written during the emigration years by the Spanish writer of German-French origin, Max Aub. No, this story cannot end. It has to be told and re-told. And perhaps some young writer, born later in the land of picaresque narrative obsession and proving to be a late disciple of the great Unamuno, will regale his country with a Dance of Death comparable in power to Goya's "Disasters of War", which have become permanently fixed in our memory; just like Picasso did, when exorcising the horror of the Spanish Civil War in Gernika.

Much of the literature I am capable of springs from some loss or other. When systems break up against their own history, as recently happened to the Soviet system, when power structures come to nothing, when the stupidity of the victors cries to Heaven, when misery accompanies victory, and the waves of refugees join the latest mass movement of the people; when once again History founders catastrophically, and capitalism, the only remaining ideology, fades into a world-wide irrationalism, when only the Stock market makes sense, and everything can start to slide along with it, when finally the guild of historians, tired of fighting for footnotes to the page, lose their way in the uncertainty of Post-History, then Literature increases in value. It lives on crises. It flowers amidst the rubble. It hears the faint noise of the woodworm. Its function is to desecrate corpses. At a price, or for free, it keeps watch over the deceased, and tells the survivors the old stories over and over again.

However, if you glance through the literary supplements or listen to the murmurings of the world of culture, whenever secondary concerns impertinently displace primary ones, Literature is also displaced. At best, once it has been tidied up, it serves as an event, or it is fed onto Internet. According to the publicity, it even promotes consumerism in marginalised groups.

However, I refure to believe all this. I am a self-confessed ignoramus. The kind of progress that would have me go faster is of no interest to me. I exercise an old-fashioned profession in an old-fashioned way. I have no computer, I do not fumble my way around Internet. I still handwrite my manuscripts; I type the second and third versions with the aid of a rickety old typewriter - I do so daily - standing next to a desk, and walking up and down; I whisper to myself, and chew over sentences until they are all - whether spoken or written - honed down to the limit and become rounded at the ends. Nevertheless, I am certain that History is still epileptic, and with it, forever in contradiction, that Literature has a future.

Pushed aside, the book will once again become subversive. And readers will be found for whom books are a means of survival. I imagine children, fed up with television and bored by computer games, becoming completely absorbed in a book and abandoning themselves to the attraction of the narrated story, who imagine over a hundred pages, and read something very different to what is on the printed page. Because that is what characterises the human being. There is no more beautiful sight than that of a child reading. Totally lost in the counter-world set between two book covers, he is still there but does not wish to be disturbed.

If one day in the near or distant future the human race - as anything is possible - were to wipe itself out in some sophisticated way, I am sure - distinguished ladies and gentlemen, dear Prince of Asturias - that Literature will have the final word even, if only in the guise of a pamphlet.

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