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True confessions

Günter Grass and Jan Wong spill their beans

BY John Degen

In his controversial 2006 memoir, Peeling the Onion, Nobel laureate Günter Grass questions the value of a re-examined past, especially a past in which there is much that might be better forgotten. “Why go back...?” he wonders. And then he answers his own question: “[B]ecause I want to have the last word.” Not bloody likely. The memoir famously reveals that the teenaged Grass had not only served in the Waffen-SS, one of the most feared and reviled units of the Nazi military, but that his service had been, technically, voluntary. Peeling the Onion encouraged many, many more words on the subject of Grass’s past. For the most part, these words were judgmental and unkind.

Grass was viciously criticized for hiding his military history throughout the many years he wrote as the conscience of postwar Germany—as though shame is best or most authoritatively examined by the faultless. Some writers, notably the American novelist John Irving, praised Grass for his honesty, however delayed, but mostly Grass had painted a bull’s-eye onto himself.

Canadian journalist Jan Wong has also recently published a confessional memoir, Beijing Confidential. Like Grass, Wong had a little something she needed to get off her chest. A student at Beijing University during the Cultural Revolution, Wong ratted out a young woman named Yin who had approached her for information on leaving China. At the time (1973), the young Wong was a true believer in Marxism, and so interpreted her acquaintance’s questions as a form of treason.

Ironically, Wong herself was able to leave China, since she was a visiting foreign student and not actually subject to the worst the Maoist regime could dish out. She reported Yin to a teacher and never heard from her again, even forgetting all about her for years before rediscovering the incident in her own diaries. Filled with regret and guilt, the fiftysomething, comfortably bourgeois Wong returned to Beijing in 2006, determined to find Yin and ask for forgiveness, despite not knowing if the woman was even still alive.

And therein lies a crucial difference between Grass and Wong. Grass’s confession is, in a sense, accidental. There was that ugly fact back there in his history, and since he was engaged in telling his history, out came the fact. No forgiveness required, or even requested. In fact, several times, Grass suggests forgiveness, where he is concerned, is off the table. “It was some time,” he writes, “before I came gradually to understand and hesitantly to admit that I had unknowingly—or more precisely, unwilling to know—taken part in a crime that did not diminish over the years and for which no statute of limitations would ever apply, a crime that grieves me still.”

By contrast, it sometimes seems that Wong’s book is entirely about her own guilt and whether it will be forgivable if she even finds Yin. Whereas Grass might say quietly and contemplatively, “I am ugly,” Wong sort of jumps up and down screaming, “Look at me! Look how ugly I am!” From very early on, Wong begins to prepare her excuses and reasons to be forgiven. “I was that very dangerous combination: fanatic, ignorant and adolescent. In 1973 I thought I knew everything about China, but I actually knew very little.”

Of course, she does find Yin, and she is forgiven, even by her teenaged children, who had been unwillingly dragged along on their mother’s mea culpa vision quest. I say of course she was forgiven because I’m not sure the book would have been written otherwise. The book ends with Wong’s return airplane symbolically breaking through Beijing’s oppressive, ever-present, guiltobscuring smog and into the clear blue sky of redemption. It is a cloying, too-perfect conclusion.

But is that Wong’s fault? I’m not sure. Hers is the generation of public contrition and even more public forgiveness. If Wong were a bigger celebrity, she might have chosen to go on Oprah rather than write a book, so I say thank goodness Wong is less well-known, because she’s actually written a very entertaining, bitchy travelogue in between the occasional fits of selfflagellation.


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