Nobel laureate Guenter Grass, who has been strongly criticized for his long-belated confession that he served in the notorious Waffen-SS during World War II, is still a "hero" in the eyes of his friend and fellow author John Irving.
"Grass remains a hero to me, both as a writer and as a moral compass; his courage, both as a writer and as a citizen of Germany, is exemplary, a courage heightened, not lessened, by his most recent revelation," Irving said last week in an e-mail message to The Associated Press.
"The fulminating in the German media has been obnoxious. Grass is a daring writer, and he has always been a daring man."
Irving's books include the novels The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany.
Grass, author of the classic The Tin Drum and many other writings, acknowledged in an interview published August 12 in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that he had served in the Waffen-SS, the Nazis' elite fighting force. In the interview, he expressed shame at having been part of the organization and said he was making the admission because "it weighed on me."
Previously, it was only known that he worked as an assistant to anti-aircraft gunners - a common duty for teenagers at the time - and that he was wounded before being captured by U.S. troops toward the end of the war.
Grass' comments were made in advance of his new memoir, Beim Haeuten der Zwiebel or Peeling the Onion. In the book, scheduled for release on September 1 but already on sale in some German bookstores, Grass remembers the pull of Nazi propaganda, saying that when he was assigned to the 10th SS Panzer Division "Frundsberg" he found "nothing offensive" about the prospect.
"So, enough excuses," he wrote. "And yet I refused for years to admit to myself the word and the double letters. That which I accepted with the dumb pride of my young years, I kept silent about after the war out of growing shame."
Elsewhere in the literary world, Portuguese writer Jose Saramago has also stepped out in defense of Grass, calling critics of the German author "hypocrites" during an interview with Spain's El Pais. Saramago told the newspaper, "He was 17-years-old (at the time of his enlistment). Does the rest of his life not count?"
The German author's post-war life is precisely the issue, Lech Walesa, another Nobel Prize winner, told Polish TV. "This situation needs to be cleared up," said the former Polish president, who criticized Grass for not revealing his Nazi past sooner, and who went on to suggest that Grass might have made his recent disclosure to "create publicity" for Peeling the Onion. Like Grass, Walesa holds honorary citizenship in the Polish city of Gdansk, but the former Solidarity leader said he would give his up if Grass didn't explain the timing of his revelation. "If there is no clarification I will renounce my citizenship of Gdansk - I will not be able to remain in the same company as Mr. Grass," Walesa said.
Back in El Pais, similar responses by German citizens drew criticism from Saramago. "I think that the reaction that [Grass] had was hypocritical from many people who are not probing their own consciences," said the Portuguese author, who won his own Nobel Prize for literature in 1998, a year before Grass was given the honor. Saramago said he was "surprised by the violence of the reactions."
Strong reactions are not, however, something new to the famed Portuguese writer. The 83-year-old Saramago found himself at the center of another World War II-related controversy in 2002, when he condemned Israel by declaring that "what is happening in Palestine is a crime which we can put on the same plane as what happened at Auschwitz."
The 150,000 copies from the first run of Grass' autobiography have already nearly sold out.