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This article is taken from PN Review 153, Volume 30 Number 1, September - October 2003.

Iliads of Abject Europe Iain Bamforth

A year ago, Germany's 'conscience' and grand old man of; letters Giinter Grass published his boldest novel in years. Crabwalk tells the story of; the sinking, at large of; what is now the Polish port of; Gdynia, of; the Wilhelm Gustloff, a converted Kraft durch Freude (Strength-through-joy) cruise ship, by a Soviet torpedo in January 1945. Gustloff was a Nazi propagandist and intelligence officer in Switzerland who had been shot in 1936 by a Jewish student from the Balkans: the party promptly made him a martyr to the cause. The ship launched with his name in 1937 carried workers in state-financed holidays to Norway and the Mediterranean: this was the socialist part of; the Nazi programme. In January 1945, having been transformed into a hospital ship, it was crammed with refugees, some of; them soldiers, fleeing the advancing Red Army: about 9,000 people, many of; them women and children, lost their lives in the Baltic, making it the worst maritime disaster ever. The main female character in the book, Tulla Pokriefke, who survives the shipwreck in a state of; advanced pregnancy, bears the same name as Grass's own mother: her blunt, canny and obdurate cast of; mind, Stalinist leanings and all, becomes a token of; the kind of; popular culture which survived longer in the East than in the more politically correct West. For Grass's book has a wider remit: it touches not just on the fate of; refugees like those of; the Wilhelm Gustloff but on the ...

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