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  • A Tale of Two Oskars: Security or Hospitality in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
  • Merle A. Williams (bio)

Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005) ends longingly with an unfulfilled wish: “We would have been safe” (326). Although a number of accomplished critics have produced searching commentaries on the novel, frequently with an emphasis on the exacting demands of fictionalizing traumatic experience, no one seems yet to have investigated the text from the particular perspective of security, despite its focus on the aftermath of the 9/11 cataclysm in relation to Hiroshima and the firestorm in Dresden. Viewing the narrative through this interpretative prism, however, soon highlights a compelling intertextual kinship between Foer’s protagonist Oskar Schell and his earlier literary namesake, Oskar Matzerath of Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum (1959). The German Oskar intriguingly prefigures and shadows his American counterpart, even as the two literary figures inhabit quite distinct conceptual and geographical terrain. Oskar Matzerath, who is born in a Danzig beset by competing Polish and German political claims, and who later struggles to negotiate the reconstruction of Germany after World War II, encounters a milieu of sustained conflict as the pragmatic actuality of daily existence. In his experience, security [End Page 702] conforms to the classic Foucauldian model of attempting effectively to curtail risk, as well as danger, in managing the circulation of unpredictable—even unruly—populations. The ideal of safety appears as the elusive dream of long-lost Renaissance rulers, firmly ensconced within the sharply circumscribed boundaries of their states. Oskar Schell, in his turn, is brought face-to-face with the consequences of breached security and violated safety in the wake of his father’s death when the Twin Towers collapse. Yet the multivalent narrative evolution of this novel opens a challenging, if strangely reassuring, ethical space: the prospect of hospitality as the unconditional welcome of otherness, of death as much as life, of language and the promise of goodness. Foer’s curiously interimplicated tale of two Oskars leads tentatively, circuitously—but with increasing conviction—to the recognition of a transformative hospitality that at once exceeds security and reconfigures safety as a paradoxically absolute solicitude.

Grass’s wryly witty appraisal of the prospect of achieving a viable condition of security is encapsulated in the chapter of The Tin Drum entitled “Inspection of Concrete, or Barbaric, Mystical, Bored.” A military entertainment group is invited to pay a visit to the German army’s emplacements along the Atlantic coast in the French-Belgian sector shortly before the Allied invasion. The troupe includes the tiny Oskar Matzerath, who had decided to stop growing at the age of three, and four equally diminutive companions, all in Nazi uniform. They feast on captured provisions: corned beef, caviar, chocolate, and plum jam. They then sight five nuns with umbrellas who are collecting crabs from the mischievously named “Rommel asparagus” (or antitank spikes) along the shore to feed their hungry kindergarten children. The commanding officer resists Corporal Lankes’s explanation that this is an innocent and necessary search for food, retorting: “Never hear of camouflage? Never hear of the fifth column? The English have been at it for centuries. They come in with their Bibles and before you know what they’re up to, boom!” (335). So the nuns are gunned down and “are seen flying heavenward,” while Lankes phlegmatically asserts that “concrete is immortal” (336). Grass’s magical-realist playlet savagely parodies the notion of security as presenting the challenge of managing human circulation within the wartime milieu (Foucault 20–21). The key Foucauldian indicators of the representative case, risk, danger, and a threatened crisis, are all apparently present, but the capacity to interpret such interconnected factors in a meaningful way is patently lacking. Ironically, the installation of Dora Seven falls on the following day, when Canadian troops make their landing only to find the German soldiers asleep or blind drunk, undirected by any competent [End Page 703] leadership. Sustained disillusionment has eroded the protocols of strict military discipline into ennui and sheer indifference.

If the concrete is “immortal” in its false promise of preempting risk, repelling danger, and containing crises, Grass puns with dark...


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pp. 702-720
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