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German writer Gunter Grass has at least three personae: international literary star, human rights advocate and decent human being. He displayed all of them last week at the International PEN Congress, held in Moscow for the first time in its 75-year history. From the moment he arrived in the Russian capital, the Nobel laureate was trailed by autograph seekers and swarmed by journalists.

At 73, Grass is a short, stocky figure who looks as though he has inhabited his body through several lifetimes. Stoic resistance and endurance are the catchwords for his presence.

Over the course of the week-long Congress, he revealed himself as a Central European intellectual, engaged in the politics of his time and a man who has been buffeted by his fame and his passion for individual liberty.

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"We invited Gunter Grass to the Congress," explained Danish delegate Neils Barfoed, "because we needed a major European writer to make a strong statement about the war in Chechnya. The struggle to subdue the Chechens has been going on for a century and Russian public opinion favours a solution, no matter how ruthless."

There had been a vehement debate within the human rights organization about the optics of holding the meeting in a country that is at war with some of its own people. After all, PEN, which stands for poets, editors and novelists, fights against censorship and lobbies government on behalf of persecuted writers. In the end, the Congress went ahead although the PEN president, Mexican poet Homero Aridjis, emphasized in his opening remarks that the presence in Moscow of writers from more than 70 countries was in no way an endorsement of the war in Chechnya.

Grass, a longtime member of the German Centre, went further. Shoulders hunched forward, a weary look on his heavily tanned face with its famous bushy mustache, Grass denounced what he called a war "without reason, without mercy," waged by "the great power of Russia" against "a small people, the Chechens." He urged writers at the congress to demand an end to the war and insist on a United Nations investigation "of all the war crimes committed by either side." And he predicted that if that did not come to pass, one day a Chechen or perhaps a Russian writer will let the world know about the suffering of the Chechens. That, he said, is the role of literature: "It does not turn a blind eye, it does not forget, it does break the silence."

Grass put the Chechen war in the context of genocidal purges of the last century. "Whatever was part of the past century," he said, "it was writers who gave testimony, mostly in contradiction to official historiography, at times -- under duress -- in code, and at times anticipating the future." It was writers, above all, who withstood the changing ideological temptations of the 20th century, he told his audience. "They permitted themselves, with artfully stilted impudences, to respond to that officially proclaimed sole truth . . . before and after that sole truth officially entered the schoolbooks."

Grass cited Austrian writer Franz Werfel's novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, an account of the Turkish massacre of Armenians during the First World War. "Hundreds of thousands of Armenian men, women and children were murdered," he said, "driven into the desert -- that is, driven into death." We would know little about "this genocide," Grass said, which is "denied by Turkish governments up to this day," without Werfel's account. "His book outlasted the concealment."

Grass went on to list a series of writers, including George Orwell, Primo Levi, Thomas Mann, Pablo Neruda, Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who have "more vividly and insistently than any set of statistics" given testimony to barbarism and oppression. He made special mention of the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, whose 1953 book The Captive Mind had influenced him greatly -- "that young author still searching for his own path, as I was then."

Born in 1927 in what was then the German town of Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland), Grass was too young to be a Nazi. But, as he wrote later in a leading German newspaper, he was old enough to have been "moulded by a system that from 1933 to 1945, at first surprised, then horrified the world." Grass himself has dug into that mixture of incredulity and horror throughout his literary career, most notably in The Danzig Trilogy: The Tin Drum (his first and still his most famous novel), Cat and Mouse and Dog Years. In his books, Grass explores complicity and guilt in the lives of ordinary people. As critic George Steiner observed, Grass had "the nerve, the indispensable tactlessness, to evoke the past" just as middle-class Germans were relishing the fruits of postwar affluence.

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His dogged outspokenness has earned him both praise and censure. Last September, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, he was commended for his relentless defence of human rights and the environment and, especially, for his self-appointed task as the "great prober of the history of this century." Yet he is often criticized for those very same qualities. Turkish representatives wrote a harsh letter to The Moscow Times complaining about Grass's support of the Armenians in his speech. An openly gay delegate from a Latin American Pen Centre demanded to know how Grass could talk about Jews and Gypsies victimized in the Holocaust but not even mention the homosexuals who were sent to concentration camps. "But I only had 10 minutes," Grass responded, "I can't talk about everybody." That response was not good enough, so eventually Grass apologized for his omission. "It happens all the time," Grass said, later. "In Germany, too, people condemn me."

At the final picnic, held at Boris Pasternak's summer house and grave in Peredelkino outside Moscow, Grass cut loose. As the vodka began flowing and the music soared, he joined in the dancing, engaging in a wild fling with a young girl from the crowd that would have exhausted a man half his age. Later, making his way out of the throng, he declined yet another request for an interview from a late arrival. "I am tired," he said. "I came, I spoke, I danced. I can't do anymore."

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Sandra Martin is a Globe columnist and the author of the award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. A long-time obituary writer for The Globe, she has written the obituaries of hundreds of significant Canadians, including Pierre Berton, Jackie Burroughs, Ed Mirvish, June Callwood, Arthur Erickson, and Ken Thomson. More


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