As in earlier works, Grass concerns himself with the effects of the past on the present; he interweaves various strands and combines fact and fiction. While the murder of Wilhelm Gustloff by David Frankfurter and the sinking of the ship the Wilhelm Gustloff are real events, the fictional members of the Pokriefke family bring these events into our own time. The title, Crabwalk , defined by Grass as "scuttling backward to move forward," refers to both the necessary reference to various events, some occurring at the same time, the same events that would lead to the eventual disaster. Crabwalk might also imply a more abstract backward glance at history, in order to allow a people to move forward. The protagonist's awkward relationships with his mother and his estranged son, explored via the crabbed process of scouring the wreckage of history for therapeutic insight, lends appropriateness to the title.
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One of my concerns on rereading was whether the novel would stand a second reading: would it still seem relevant? The novel deals with the sinking of the German ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, on 30th January , torpedoed by a Russian submarine, and the resultant loss of life. The numbers of lives lost has always been hard to quantify, because it was carrying thousands of civilians who had boarded at the last minute fleeing from the Russian advance from the east, many of whom were not registered officially as passengers. In addition there were U boat crew members, naval women and Croatian volunteers- a mixture then of civilian and naval personnel lying somewhere between 6, and 10, There were estimated to be approximately 1, survivors and so the losses lay somewhere between 5, and 9, Grass notes more than once in the book that 4, of these were thought to be children.