HAMBURG, Germany -- Once again, German critics are calling for the head of their resident literary lion. So once again Gunter Grass is taking cover.
But unlike previous rounds of such intellectual gunfire, the 67-year-old Mr. Grass is this time being targeted as much for his politics as for any literary shortcoming.
With his new novel, "A Wide Field," Mr. Grass has become the first serious author to tackle the topic of German reunification, and all the wrenching changes it set in motion five years ago. Judging from the pained rantings of the critics, the wounds are still tender.
What seems to have piqued critics the most is that Mr. Grass, a Westerner, has sided with the complainers and ex-Communists of the former East Germany in his views on reunification. Quite simply, he's never thought it was a good idea.
That is not a popular view, and Mr. Grass, who in the past has helped his countrymen explore their own psyches, is being accused of writing without artfulness about a part of Germany he barely knows.
The uproar has shouted its way onto Germany's magazine covers and television talk shows, a turbulent but bracing interlude for bibliophiles in a country hypnotized by television.
"A monstrosity," thundered the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
"Unreadable," sputtered Die Zeit.
But one of the lengthiest, most damning diatribes came from Marcel Reich-Ranicki, long regarded as the most prominent literary critic in the land.
A recent cover of Germany's leading news weekly, Der Spiegel, depicted Mr. Reich-Ranicki with a disgusted look on his face as he rips the book in half.
Mr. Grass has been consistent in his view about the former East Germany: He always favored confederation, a cultural merger that would have let the Easterners reform their own government and economic system without being dominated by Western corporate giants such as Deutsche Bank and Daimler Benz.
He has warned that the newly reunified Germany will become so powerful and insecure that it will again self-destruct, taking half of Europe with it.
Mr. Grass had already made these views clear in speeches and essays. But with "A Wide Field" he has figuratively carved them in stone as literature for generations to come, mostly through the voice of the book's protagonists, Theo Wuttke and his 19th-century alter ego, Theodor Fontane, who takes his identity from the German writer of the same name.
Like Mr. Grass, Wuttke is a celebrated intellectual. Unlike Mr. Grass, he is an East German. Nicknamed "Fonty," Wuttke leads a parallel life with the 19th-century Fontane.
So, while Fonty spends most of the book roaming through the tumultuous events of 1989-1990, Fontane roams between 1848 and 1871, when Otto von Bismarck was first uniting the German states (and everyone knows what that colossus led to).
The latter-day Fonty is shadowed by a spy for East Germany's Stasi secret police. Yet, he can't help but feel uneasy when the Berlin Wall tumbles down, and soon Western culture and consumerism prove his unease well-founded by swallowing up his lifestyle.
East Germany wasn't so bad
But the aspect of the book that seems to infuriate the critic most is its apparent attitude that the East German regime, for all its snooping, repression and consumer shortages, wasn't so bad after all.
This view is typified by Fonty's observation to his wife: "Within this world of shortages we lived in a comfortable dictatorship. Believe me, Emilie, over there on the other side, whether in Wuppertal or in Bonn, they're no different from the rest of us."
Notably absent from the furor has been any credible voice, pro or con, from eastern Germany. Instead the debate has been dominated by west German intellectuals sparring with a west German author in the west German media, with all parties presuming to speak for Easterners as well.
The shrillness has at times reached a volume and pitch worthy of Oskar Matzerath, the tiny protagonist of Mr. Grass' best-known novel, "The Tin Drum," whose shrieks could shatter glass.
The critics would say it is Mr. Grass who has grown shrill in his later years, favoring polemics over character development and replacing his one-time deft shadings of gray with clumsy strokes in black and white.
When facing severe criticism of past novels, Mr. Grass has sometimes left the country, venturing as far afield as India.
This time he is taking cover at book signings, locations where applause is generous, questions are rarely allowed, and the book is allowed to speak in its own defense, in the gruff baritone reading voice of Mr. Grass.
For better or worse, he remains the current standard-bearer of a literary tradition that includes Goethe, Kafka and Thomas Mann. (And however harsh the reception of "A Wide Field," Mr. Grass can at least take comfort his book didn't draw the reaction of Goethe's 1774 novel, "The Sorrows of Young Werther," a tale of )) unrequited love that prompted the suicides of countless young German males.)
Mr. Grass' appearances have lately drawn worshipful crowd eager for just a glimpse of his hangdog face, drooping spectacles and walrus mustache. On a recent night in Hamburg, nearly 500 admirers paid $7 apiece for the privilege of fidgeting for 90 sweltering minutes while he read briskly from "A Wide Field."
Despite the room's heat, the organizers didn't dare open a door because of a clamoring mob outside shouting, "Wir wollen rein!" ("We want in!"). One particularly loud outburst prompted Mr. Grass to pause momentarily in his reading, cocking his head as if to hear a strain of sweet music floating in on a breeze.
"Apparently," he deadpanned, "literature can hold its own against the media."
5) The sweaty crowd burst into applause.
Admirers are cool to book
But even some of Mr. Grass' most faithful, longtime reader don't have much good to say about "A Wide Field."
Hans-Juergen Schulz, 51, who teaches English and German, lugged a sack full of more than a dozen books and articles by Mr. Grass to the Hamburg reading, then waited in line for a half-hour to collect autographs for them. As a boy he hid "The Tin Drum" under a school bench in order to be able to read it, and he has taught it to his students.
Although he has come across "some good passages and descriptions" while plowing through the first third of "A Wide Field's" 781 pages, he has found its abrupt transitions between centuries "exhausting."
As for Mr. Grass' almost apocalyptic view of reunification, he isn't so sure he agrees. But he does detect a long-term strategy for greatness.
"If my understanding of Grass is correct," Mr. Schulz said, "then he wants to be considered right a hundred years from now, in case German history turns out badly again."
For now, the critics don't appear to be hurting sales. Even at $34 a copy, the book moved almost immediately onto national best-seller lists, which are usually dominated by translated novels from elsewhere in Europe or the United States. "A Wide Field" is one of only two books by German authors on Der Spiegel's current top-15 list for fiction.
That trend generally leaves few home-grown targets for German critics to aim at. But when one as large as Mr. Grass looms into view, they make the most of it.