The narrator of the novella is the journalist Paul Pokriefke, who was born on 30 January 1945 on the day that the Strength Through Joy ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff (ship), was sunk. His young mother-to-be, Tulla Pokriefke (born in Danzig, and already known to readers from two parts of the Danzig Trilogy, Cat and Mouse and Dog Years), found herself among the more than 10,000 passengers on the ship and was among those saved when it went down. According to Tulla, Paul was born at the moment the ship sank, on board the torpedo boat which had rescued them. His life is heavily influenced by these circumstances, above all because his mother Tulla continually urges him to fulfill his 'duty' and to commemorate the event in writing.
In the course of his research, the narrator discovers by chance that his estranged son Konny has also developed an interest in the ship as a result of Tulla's influence. On his website ('blutzeuge.de') he explores the murder of Gustloff and the sinking of the ship, in part through a dialogue in which he adopts the role of Gustloff, and that of David Frankfurter is taken by another young man, Wolfgang Stremplin.
The two eventually meet in Schwerin, Konny's and Gustloff's hometown. Wolfgang, though not Jewish, projects a Jewish persona. He spits three times on the former memorial to Gustloff, thus desecrating it in Konny's eyes. Konny shoots him dead, mirroring the shooting of Gustloff by Frankfurter; after the deed he hands himself in to the police and state that, "I shot because I am a German"; Frankfurter had said, "I shot because I am a Jew".
The narrator is eventually forced to realise that his imprisoned son has himself become a new martyr, and is celebrated as such by neo-Nazis on the Internet.
Konrad (known as 'Konny') is the son of Paul Pokriefke and Gabi; after his parents' divorce, Konny is brought up by his left-wing mother and has little contact with his father. Highly intelligent, he is characterised as a 'loner' by his parents. He has a very good relationship with Tulla, who tells him stories of the ship, and with whom he eventually goes to live. Via his website he forms a love-hate relationship with Wolfgang: divided by their political views, they are nevertheless connected by similar characters and a love for table-tennis. At his trial he claims that he has nothing against Jews themselves, but that he considers their presence among Aryan populations to be a 'foreign body'; his father considers that he has a 'slow-burning' hatred for the Jews.
Tulla is short, thin, white-haired since the sinking of the ship, and attractive to men even into old age. Politically she is difficult to classify, except as an extremist: on the one hand she repeatedly praises the 'classless society' of the Strength Through Joy ship and supports her grandson even after the murder; on the other hand, she becomes a model functionary of the SED in East Germany, weeping on the news of Stalin's death.
Tulla speaks with a strong accent (a form of Plattdeutsch described by the narrator as 'Langfursch', after the part of Danzig she is from). She seeks at every opportunity to put the story of the ship into the public domain, because it was the subject of silence for so long. When her attempts to persuade her son to write about the disaster fail, she turns her attention instead to her grandson. She also supplies Konny with the weapon which he uses in the murder, after he is threatened by neo-Nazi skinheads.
The mysterious figure of the old one stands between Grass and the narrator Paul. Belonging to the generation of those who fled west after the end of the war, he encourages Paul to write of the sinking as a substitute for his own failure to do so. The narrator refers to him as his "employer" or "boss". The possibility of identifying him with Grass serves to prevent the equation of the narrator with the author. Crabwalk, published in Germany in 2002 as Im Krebsgang, is a novel by Danzig-born German author Günter Grass who had received the 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature.