The Tin Drum by Günter Grass – the greatest novel of the 20th century
The Tin Drum combines history, horror story, burlesque cartoon and satiric fable with vibrant, subversive imagery. Stylistically it is light years removed from the stately narratives of Thomas Mann
Sanctuary, at least for some people, may best be found in an insane asylum. From his white-enamelled metal hospital bed, under the watchful, if bewildered eye of Bruno, his nurse, Oskar Matzerath sets out with the help of a family photograph album to tell not only his story but also that of his country.
Oskar, very much his own man despite his chosen lack of growth, elects to move between the first-person and third-person voice. Drumming is his way of detaching from his family and the events unfolding around him. He pulverises each new drum, replacements lasting mere days; such is the frenzy of the story unfolding; so oppressive is the reality he is intent on escaping.
When he says in the opening pages of this angry, swaggering and earthy tour de force: “I’d like to have the bed rails raised even higher to keep anyone from coming too close,” it is not that unexpected. Here is a postwar novel born of that war’s legacy. The Tin Drum broke all the rules and invented a few more. The polemic is there but, considering the boisterousness of the narrative, at times it is not that obvious. But not always; Oskar and his father stand outside the burning synagogue: “….civilians and men in uniforms were piling up books, sacral objects, and strange pieces of cloth”.
When the young Grass began writing his flamboyant picaresque in Paris in the late 1950s he was a mason turned sculptor, visual artist and poet, intent on confronting the several versions of German history he had been taught and had, by then, lived. The Tin Drum combines history, horror story, burlesque cartoon and satiric fable with vibrant, subversive imagery. Stylistically it is light years removed from the stately narratives of Thomas Mann who had won the Nobel Prize in 1929, two years after Grass was born.
The Tin Drum certainly broke free of Mann’s towering presence. In it Grass is drawn instead to the freewheeling, organic word pictures shaping Cuban Alejo Carpentier’s magic realism. In turn Grass would prove a major influence on Salman Rushdie’s 1981 Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children.
Oskar’s odyssey begins when he “falls” down the cellar stairs on his third birthday, determined not to grow and instead commence his career as a relentless drummer who “sangshattered” glass. This much is true. But his story began some years earlier, before he was born. In fact its roots are in the attempted conception of his mother. Cut to a Monday afternoon and his grandmother Anna, busy gathering potatoes in a Kashubian field. She stops to bake a few to eat and builds a small fire. After a while she decides to taste one: “and inhaling smoke and October air, stared with rounded eyes over her flaring nostrils across the field to the nearby horizon with its grid of telegraph poles and the top third of the bricks work factory”.
Anna watches as a chase unfolds. She hides the quarry beneath her many skirts, four to be precise, and sets the police in the wrong direction. Though not exactly a love story, the fugitive, Joseph Koljaiczek, hiding under the skirts, in time becomes the father of Oskar’s mother, Agnes. But Oskar with his storyteller’s flair, makes the facts dance: “Anna Bronski, my grandmother, changed her name under cover of that very night’s darkness, transformed herself, with the help of a priest who was generous with the sacraments, into Anna Koljaiczek, and followed Joseph, if not into Egypt, at least to the provincial capital on the Mottlau, where Joseph found work as a craftsman and temporary respite from the rural police.” The city at the mouth of the Mottlau is of course, none other than Grass’s birthplace, Danzig. Oskar and Grass play games throughout; neither can ever resist a digression – most of which are significant. Stories are told. Characters wander in and out. Sometimes they die, sometimes they don’t.
Koljaiczek as a known arsonist is forced to assume the identity of a dead man. Even so, it is not enough and facing exposure he flees, most probably to his death by drowning, or possibly, and very unlikely, to a new life in America. “Called himself Joe Colchic, they say. In the timber trade with Canada.”
The narrative races along exuberant and confident, and in 2009 the 50th anniversary of its publication was marked with a new translation, one that conveys the sheer physicality of Grass’s German with its rolling phrases, asides, an inventively rhythmic use of repetition, fairytale motifs and a wealth of linguistic jokes. Breon Mitchell’s lively and faithful new translation was supervised by Grass and is true to the wacky and the practical which are hallmarks of Grass’s dark comic vision. By then, Ralph Manheim (1907-1992), who had been Grass’s regular English-language translator from the publication of The Tin Drum onwards, was dead.
Although generous with the details of all that went before him Oskar makes no apology about his particular interest in his story: “Since I’m burning to announce the beginning of my own existence…” He drums on. His story quickly becomes complicated as his mother marries the grocer Alfred Matzerrath, but resumes her romance with her cousin Jan, leaving Oskar with two fathers. Jan is the romantic, but Alfred can cook. Oskar is a laconic narrator, with an eye for detail: “I first saw the light of this world in the form of two sixty-watt light blubs”.
In Oskar, Grass has a witness whose story begins in childhood. As a baby he was already advanced. “I was one of those clairaudient infants whose mental development is complete at birth and there after simply confirmed.” He could hear his mother softening her disappointment in his not being “a little lass” with a remark which would prove ironic: “When little Oskar is three years old, we’ll give him a tin drum.”
Come the birthday Oskar is taken with his image. “There, I have it now, my drum. There it hangs, brand-new, zigzagged white and red, on my tummy. There I am, self-assured, my face solemn and resolute, my drumsticks crossed upon the tin. There I am in my striped sweater…There my hair stands, like a brush ready for action atop my head, there, mirrored in each blue eye, a will to power that needs no followers. There I am back then, in a stance I found no reason to abandon. . . There and then I decided, there I declared, there I decreed, that I would never be a politician and most certainly not a grocer, that I would make a point instead of remaining as I was – and so I did, remained that size, kept that attire, for years to come.”
Young Oskar is a defiant individual, open to adventure, particularly sexual escapades. The comic often turns to horror as when an outing to buy fish includes the revolting spectacle of a submerged horse’s head alive with eels being hauled up from the Baltic. Soon after this Oskar’s comely mother dies, and becomes “poor mama” thereafter. Her death is the first of many. In a novel that never becomes sentimental Grass achieves moments of unexpected beauty. “Mama could be very cheerful. Mama could be very timid. Mama forgot things quickly. Mama nonetheless had a good memory. Mama threw me out with the bathwater yet sat in the tub with me. When I sangshattered glass, Mama sold lots of putty . . . When Mama died, the red flames on my drum turned pale…”
Throughout the novel Oskar engages in fairly graphic sex with a number of women. He sets off on a tour with Bebra’s circus troupe and watches as Roswitha, his beloved, dies, killed by a stray shell and all because he declined to fetch her morning coffee. Eventually he also sees off both his fathers. Scores must be settled; Matzerath marries Oskar’s Maria and the narrator sits in fury as his father assumes that baby son Kurt is his own. Oskar is soon being bullied by that boy. Hit by a stone at the grocer’s funeral, Oscar has a growth spurt. More twists and turns. He sits for artists, becomes a jazz musician, finds fame. But always he is seeking something: love? security? answers?
Danzig, caught between Germany and Poland, is Oskar’s tragic playground. The story is dense, a rollercoaster; Oskar is both monster and tragic hero. Above all he is a witness, angry and despairing. Near the close of the novel Oskar says: “I’ve run out of words now, but still have to think over what Oskar’s going to do after his inevitable discharge from the mental institution. Marry? Stay single? Emigrate? Model? Buy a stone quarry? Gather disciples? Found a sect?”
If there has to be the single greatest novel of the twentieth century, with all respect to James Joyce’s Ulysses and William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, this raucously mercurial debut could well be it.