The Allthatsleft Book Club #4: The Tin Drum, Gunter Grass

by Ray_North on April 26, 2013

Unknown-2Written in 1959 by the young and previously unpublished Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum is a masterpiece of story telling. It combines fantasy with the most detailed factual and historical accounts, romance with tragedy, comedy with decay, blasphemy with spirituality – it is a truly wonderful book.

It is the story of Oskar Mazarath, who is born to a glamorous mother and Nazi father (though he presumes that his real father is his mother’s lover Jan Bronski). At the age of 3 Oskar is already so effected by his dysfunctional family that he decides that he will stop growing – so he does. We now enter the world of the dwarf child as he grows up in Hitler’s Germany with his constant companion a tin drum, which provides a lunatic beat to the narrative.

You are never sure if Oskar is insane or not, something which Grass brilliantly depicts by constantly changing from first person (with Oskar as the narrator) to third person, where Oskar describes his feelings with a wonderful and often comic objectivity. I can’t think of another writer who has pulled off this device.

As he grows older, his life becomes increasingly bizarre, he joins a troupe of dancing singing dwarfs who are sent to France to entertain the Wehrmacht, and falls in love with Roswitha (who is described as being 3 feet tall) before she is blown up by the Allies at Normandy. When he returns to Danzig, his father is killed by the Russians and he ends up as a nude male model in Dusseldorf, before falling in love with a nurse, Sister Dorothea (Oskar has a very healthy interest in nurses), she rejects his advances (which are so desperately creepy they are almost difficult to read), but, as fate would have it, he becomes a renowned percussionist, whose fame comes as a result of his ability to make the hardened post-war Europeans remember the innocence of their childhood.

Still discontented however, he returns to Germany where he is accused and convicted of the murder of Sister Dorothea and sent to a lunatic asylum, from where he is recounting his story, before ultimately (spoiler alert), having the conviction quashed when it is discovered that someone else committed the crime.

Although, Oskar was ultimately innocent of the murder of Sister Dorothea, he is guilty of heap load of other deaths, and what amazing deaths they are – his mother, who is driven partly insane by his drumming and refusal to grow, dies following a strange incident with an eel and a horses head; whilst his ‘presumptive father’ Jan Bronski is executed by the Germans after Oskar insists on him going to get him a new tin drum from the Polish Post Office in Danzig, just after it is being attacked by the marauding German Army; whilst his ‘other presumptive father’ Mazarath is killed, whilst choking on a Nazi party pin badge, that he tries unsuccessfully to swallow after Oskar has handed it to him just as the Russians are coming through the door of their house.

Although the political references are subtle it is clear that the German of the Third Reich is a reflection of the people who populate this book, almost all of whom are flawed and sullied, intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

It is a true work of genius and Grass was rightly given the nobel prize for literature as a result of its brilliance. I commend it.

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