Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Book Review (Audio): The Box: Tales From the Darkroom, by Gunter Grass
The Box: Tales from the Darkroom
by Gunter Grass
translated from the German by Krishna Winston
Houghton Mifflin, 2010
Narrated by Stefan Rudnicki
Blackstone Audio, 2010
5 discs, 5 hours
Have you ever had dinner with a group of people, all of whom are related, and all of whom are oblivious to your presence as they continually relive (ad nauseum) family events and stories that a) aren't very interesting and b) happened way before you ever met these folks? And as they regale each other with these tales, they're constantly interrupting one another and have vastly differing versions and opinions of what exactly happened and why?
Well, that's what it's like reading (or listening, as the case may be) to The Box.
This one was a little rough going for exactly that reason. Now, let me say that I haven't read anything by Gunter Grass before and I believe that this was probably not the best book of his as an introduction. (So as not to judge on just this book alone, I may read some of his other work in the future, just to get a better sense of whether this is his typical style.) But, I picked it up at the library because the premise sounded interesting.
Grass writes in the voices of his eight grown children, who gather with some regularity at each others' homes for a meal and to tape record their childhood memories. Their father (Grass?) requested this of them (I think), and so each chapter begins with a description of who's house we're at on this particular occasion, the meal set before them, a very brief recap of what's happening in their respective lives, and the fumblings of the audio recorder.
No matter what story they are telling, they always seem to come back to the issue of Marie and her "magic box," an Agfa camera.
Marie is a "family friend" of the children's father - and I put family friend in quotes deliberately because you get the impression (and some of the children agree) that there might have been a bit more to the relationship. This wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility because several of the eight children have different mothers. She is based on a real person, as the book is dedicated to Marie Rama.
Marie (also refered to as "Mariechen") is with the family all the time, and so is her magical camera. She takes pictures of their everyday life - right down to the crumbs they leave on the table - but once in the darkroom, the images become altered and dramatically different from what actually happened at the moment the photo was snapped.
I think that The Box is meant to show how events in our lives can be viewed differently, even by the same people who experienced them with us, but in the end, this just didn't work for me. A day after finishing it, I can't remember any of the stories that the children told, and the feeling I have is just one of boredom and disinterest. There's way too much talk about the freakin' CAMERA. As one reviewer on Amazon said, by the time you're finished with The Box, you are sick to death of hearing about this damn camera and its magical powers.
(I think there is probably much more to this that I, because of my unfamiliarity with Grass's other works, am not understanding or seeing clearly. I'm definitely missing something here.)
Because I listened to this on audio, I do want to say that I thought Stefan Rudnicki did a tremendous job as narrator. As I mentioned, this is a story told by eight children - and Rudnicki is the only narrator! He varies his voice and inflection to represent each of the characters, and does this well. It's not always possible to know which person is talking, but you know that the speaker has indeed changed, which is more important.
If you like Gunter Grass's other works, The Box might be something you'd be interested in picking up. If not, I'd recommend skipping this one.
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