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           Volume 11 |Issue 09| March 02, 2012 |


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Book Review

Stories from The Dark Room

Jackie Kabir


His quest to learn what his eight children thought of his family and the way they grew up led the Nobel Laureate, Günter Grass, to write Die Box. Although the eight children shared the same father, they were born of different mothers. So they gathered around a table to reminisce their childhood. The twins Pat and Jorsch, who were the first born, were asked to talk first. Then came the little girl, Lara, followed by Taddle. Then there was one more girl named Lena from a different mother and Nana, Jasper and Paulchen.

Die Box by Günter Grass, published in 2008, is known as his second volume of memoirs, the first one being Beim Häuten der Zwiebel or Peeling the Onion (2007). Die Box was translated by Krishna Winston in 2010 as The Box: Tales from the Darkroom. Winston is a professor of German Studies at The Wesleyan connection.

The Box: Stories from The Dark Room is really about a box, a pre-war camera and the woman behind the camera. Her name was Mariechen. She had remained close to the father of the eight children throughout his life. None of the eight children could think of a time when Mariechen was not with them. She had helped him in different stages of his life. She photographed the series of women he was involved with, along with their children. She also helped his writing by taking pictures of any subject that he needed.

The camera belonged to Marie's late husband, Hans, who was also a friend of the writer. The box and all other belongings of Hans and Mariechen had been burnt, but it was only the box that survived the First World War. The children remember Mariechen snapping photos of them whenever their father said, “Snap away Marie!”

When she was in a lousy mood, she just replied, “that's all I am, your snap-away-Marie!”

She was the witness to all his failed and successful relationships with women. As the children put it, first it was Pat's mother and then Lena's mother, Nana's mother and lastly Jasper and Paulchen's mother, with whom he finally found peace.

Mariechen was a funny looking woman, according to the children: “And she had a weird haircut. A bob, father called it. She looked like a young girl with wrinkles, scrawny and flat chested.” Mariechen had a sad face and lamented that. “I am just a leftover,”

She also said the same thing about the Agfa box, which was dented in all sides. It was the only thing left to her which had belonged to both Hans and her. That's why she loved it so much. When asked what the box was a leftover of, she always brought up the war. The box was so old that it took photos of things that were not there. Or it showed things that one couldn't imagine in their wildest dreams. It was an all-seeing box, she added, which must have been the result of the fire.

Among the children, Paulchen was her favourite and he was often allowed in the dark room which was forbidden to everyone else. The children all knew that Mariechen and their father had a very special relationship. They knew it because she was always with him and whenever she came out of the dark room, the two of them would whisper to each other for hours.

What is most interesting about the book is that even though the book is written in the first person, the eight narrators talk one after the other without any introduction. It's up to the reader to understand who is speaking when. There are nine sections of the book, each showing a different background of each of the children's residence.

Even though The Box: Tales from the Darkroom is known to be Gunter Grass's second memoir, the writer's identity is not mentioned anywhere in the book. It's a complex and engaging story, and demands concentration from the reader.


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