Helen's Reviews > Dog Years

Dog Years by Günter Grass
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Jan 14, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: world-war-ll
Read from January 14 to February 07, 2011

Dog Years was mind-bendingly great. We are all scarecrows.

Two boys and a dog are on the banks of a river, watching debris stream by--furniture, uniforms from past wars, clothing from other eras, the carcasses of cats and farm animals. In other words, German history.

The two friends are Walter Matern and Eduard Amsel, who is not-so-secretly half-Jewish. Eddi is an artist and a thinker; Matern is the physical one, acting as his bodyguard. Together with a gang of friends, he was happily beating the overweight Eddi in the schoolyard, when for no reason he could understand, he suddenly switched sides.

The two boys are inseparable, growing up in the flat farmland near the Vistula. One day, little Amsel discovers that he's an artist; he makes scarecrows out of sticks and pipes and discarded clothing, miraculous scarecrows that do an unnaturally good job of scaring crows away. Everyone wants one. But over time, the scarecrows come to resemble people Amsel knows, culminating in a fearsome bird monster. (This made me think Grass must have read Bruno Schulz.) The townspeople turn on him, making him destroy his collection and his studio, forcing him to leave town.

Later in the novel, when Hitler is firmly in control of Germany, Amsel, now a young man, smiles and tries eagerly to fit in. In the novel's most chilling scene, Matern, seduced by the deadly tribal brotherhood of the brown-shirted Storm Troopers, leads a brutal attack on his oldest friend, viciously smashing every one of his teeth. A changed Eddi Amsel rises from the earth, packs a suitcase and slips away into the night.

The second section of the novel is written as a series of letters from the morally ambivalent everyman Harry Liebenau to his beloved cousin Tula, detailing their childhood, his experiences as a soldier, and the history and pedigree of the German Shepherd Prinz, Hitler's favorite dog. The final part of the narrative belongs to a repentant Walter, with a hilariously vengeful tour through postwar Germany, eventually bringing him back together with his old friend Amsel.

I don't have the words to properly laud this immensely powerful book. It’s a distillation of poetic wordplay, human nature, philosophy, myth and history. It is, by turns, gentle, witty, wise, unforgiving, sorrowing, terrifying, compassionate, critical, pornographic, scatalogical, and savagely funny. Dog Years is a masterpiece of German literature, a deep, long, broad exploration of that terrible time in history when millions of ordinary people, all together, took leave of their senses--a book that manages to be an apology, a celebration and a warning.

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Reading Progress

02/03/2011 page 324
56.0% ""On sorrow floats laughter.""
05/17/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Brent (new) - added it

Brent Powers GREAT review, Helen. I understand that the philosopher, Martin Heidegger appears in the book in a non too flattering portrait. Don't know if Grass actually uses the name. Really MUST read this guy. I mean, when I've finished with the three other things I'm reading now.


Helen Thanks, Brent! Sorry I'm so late replying to your comment. I LOVE this book. Yes, there is an unnamed philosopher who comes in for a lot of teasing, it's actually pretty hilarious, must be even funnier if you know Heidegger's work.


message 3: by Brent (new) - added it

Brent Powers Really must read this one!


message 4: by K (new)

K You did well to read this difficult book. Fine review.


Helen Thank you! You know, I didn't find it difficult, I just loved reading it. Gunter Grass plays with prose the way other people write poetry.


Helen This book stuck with me for a long time. It's a powerful tool for explaining to non-Germans what Germany was like before, during, and after the war.


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