“The Box: Tales from the Darkroom”
Date of publication: 2010
Said to be a fictionalized memoir, Gunter Grass’ “The Box” was certainly unlike anything I’ve read before (at least recently). I picked up this novel on a whim from the “last copies in store” shelf at the local bookstore. The pale cover attracted me and the jacket copy, describing a family of eight children coming together to record their discussions of their childhood memories for their aging father, seemed to promise an interesting, casual, and enjoyable read. The novel, only 194 pages long, was short enough to be a quick read, but not so short that I’d feel cheated of my money. I’d hoped I’d found a gem when I first picked it up.
The children (in no particular order): Lena, Lara, Georg (Jorsch), Paul, Nana, Jasper, Pat, Taddel. Certainly enough names to keep you concentrating hard, especially when the narrative is lacking any “he said/she said.” The reader perceives the recorded conversations as the father will later hear them–an interview transcript where the speakers are not clearly identified. Their stories centre around their memories of their father, there many different mothers, and the woman whose relationship to the family is ambiguous, Marie. The box refers to Marie’s camera which, perhaps out of childhood fantasy, they say had the ability to capture what was, is, and will be in it’s magical lens. Their stories often stray on the side of the fantastical, seemingly merging dream, reality, and imaginations.
Marie’s photography becomes the focal point (or the launching point) of many of their conversations. Their memories stem from her cameras and her pictures and her passion of documenting their lives. The children’s father, a well-know bestselling author, knows them through these pictures and the children’s memories seem to come more from the pictures rather than the reality. After the first 50 pages, I quickly became sick of hearing about the camera: what camera she was using, how it worked, where she bought it, why each was significant. It was too much shop talk for me. I felt like I was listening to an enthusiastic salesperson attempting to sell me a mid-20th Century camera.
The memories that come up in the family’s discussions are stated to often be the inspiration for the father’s many bestselling novels. This observations suggests the many ways we as human beings employ memory and document those events that we determine to be memorable. The way in which the camera falsifies, or perhaps reconstructs/predicts, the moments in time that the children remember, reminds the reader that our memories, too, change with time and as we acquire new experiences and as we gain distance from the original event. Often the photos in the story are lost and the documented moments fade into what may have happened or what might have happened, with no concrete proof to show whose memory is the most accurate.
What I was interested in were the discussions of the families interactions in and around the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie. Whether historically accurate or not, their memories of the wall and Marie’s time-lapsed photos of the wall being torn down are fascinating. I would have liked to see more of this written in, but there was enough to keep me interested and to keep me reading.
I wouldn’t suggest this as a novel that you should read in your lifetime. My account of this story may interest you enough to pick it up and check it out, but it isn’t something I’d encourage you to read.