The Cacophonous Beating of the Drum
Oskar Matzerath was born in 1924 in the Free City of Danzig (modern day Gdansk, Poland). Oskar was special, he was born with an unusual and adult-like capacity for discernment which enabled him to stop growing when he was just three-years old. With a dwarfish stature for the rest of his life, Oskar embarked on a life of that culminated in a mental asylum. In the confines of the asylum, Oskar recounted his life.
A lot of things distinguish Oskar from his peers. He is a dwarf and was born with an innate ability of shattering glasses with shrieks. Indeed, his life is nothing but uninteresting. Then there is his uncommon obsession for a tin drum he received when he turned three-years old. The tin drum’s beats expressed Oskar’s most obscure thoughts, and often, his distaste of the mentality prevailing within his family and neighborhood.
“Today I know that everything watches, that nothing goes unseen, and that even wallpaper has a better memory than ours. It isn’t God in His heaven that sees all. A kitchen chair, a coathanger, a half-filled ash tray, or the wooden replica of a woman named Niobe can perfectly well serve as an unforgetting witness to every one of our acts.” ~ Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum
This is the first image that springs out of the multi-layered narrative. This tableau of a young man’s life is a collection of events that are the quintessence of life. Oskar represents each of us. He is abound with youthful energy and is filled with a zest for life which is unencumbered by the responsibilities of adulthood. Oskar represents our innate desire to live our lives the way we want to; no limitations, no prohibitions, unencumbered by the prejudices the world has. We want to be stuck in the life of a three-year-old whilst enjoying the rest of the ride.
Life, unfortunately, always has its own way of forcing us to grow up, to plod the path that is all too familiar. It can come in the form of the death of a parent, or a traumatic experience which makes us choose instead to fade into the obscurity of quotidian existence.
Gunter Grass’ magnum opus soar because of the themes it dealt with. The Tin Drum can be likened to an onion which has several layers; in order to get to the core, one has to peel it one by one. It holds the reader to his seat because of the tenterhook and of the sense that there is something deeper beneath the surface.
It is the backdrop to Oskar’s story that stabs the heart. Ironically, this horrific backstory makes the narrative tantalizingly outstanding. Interspersed within the premises of the story are references to the horrors of the Second World War. The ingenuity of the narrative lies on how the narrative sparingly discussed the war, yet on the whole, creating an impact.
“I’ve also been told it makes a good impression to begin modestly by asserting that novels no longer have heroes because individuals have ceased to exist, that individualism is a thing of the past, that all human beings are lonely, all equally lonely, with no claim to individual loneliness, that they all form some nameless mass devoid of heroes.” ~ Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum
What was guised as entertainment belies a dark tale, a crime even. With the mirth dying down, the narrative’s satirical elements begin floating to the surface. The dark reality behind the narrative makes one feel aghast at its gory overtones. The vignettes of the Second World War were mixed in with Oskar’s unorthodox story. One spectrum warrants laughter for its wit while one draws a choking laughter because the world can never seem to mourn for what what it lost.
The lack of direct references to the Second World War is perhaps a bigger allegory in itself. Perhaps it is Grass’ tribute to what were lost, a resounding silence beyond the hubbub. Perhaps.
With great savvy and attention to details, Grass used obscure and subtle symbols. He played the reader’s imaginations to portray the horrors of the Second World War, Gunter Grass also emphasized the tide of remorse that was a consequence of the war. Post-war, residents went to the onion cellar club to cut up onions and weep. “People wept. At long last, people wept again. Wept openly, wept without restraint, wept honestly.” Another noteworthy symbolism in the narrative is the peephole Bruno used to observe Oskar. It is an allegory to the gas chambers which were equipped with peepholes in order to witness the struggles of the dying.
Navigating the confusing labyrinth that is The Tin Drum is no easy task. The narrative immediately plunges the reader into a labyrinth that could be confusing. It is also its thick layers of varying themes that challenges the readers. It didn’t help that Oskar, like Rushdie’s Saleem, is a very unreliable narrator who jumps from first person to third perspective, sometimes in one sentence. It is a slow burner but once a rhythmic pace is established, the narrative transforms into a magical, albeit horrific tale. Nevertheless, it was Grass’ prose and writing style that triumphed.
“They had tried doing it by themselves in her room with a cheap onion, but it wasn’t the same. You needed an audience. It was so much easier to cry in company. It gave you a real sense of brotherhood in sorrow when to the right and left of you and in the gallery overhead your fellow students were all crying their hearts out.” ~ Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum
The Tin Drum is a towering tour de force that redefines what literature can and will do. Grass’ uncanny storytelling is a thing of fascination. It is the magical story of a boy who denounced everything to test his limits. He is the embodiment of human experience. At various intersections, his experiences inspire laughter, confusion, and even pain. By opting to live on his own terms, he showed limitations are things of imagination; one’s mindset is the key to survival.
The backdrop to Oskar’s story is a carefully weaved one as well. It is a story in itself. The Tin Drum regales in its chronicles of Oskar’s life while simultaneously and obscurely painting a different picture. Gunter Grass was simply exhilarating in his portrayal of both the life and times of a young man while at the same time depicting the horrors of the Second World War. Its universal and local tones raises The Tin Drum to a pedestal it solely occupies.
It does take sometime to warm up to the narrative. As mentioned in the review, it has too many layers which could stymie the reader from appreciating the force behind the narrative. The more I think of the narrative and the story, the more I am reminded of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita because of the way both novels satirize their real themes. In the process, both Bulgakov and Grass came up with works of literature that deserves a second look.
Would I recommend it? Yes, especially if you are into reading deep narratives and unusual writing styles.
Author: Gunter Grass
Translator: Ralph Manheim
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Publishing Date: 2004
Number of Pages: 565 pages
Genre: Novel, Fiction, Magical Realism
The publication of The Tin Drum in 1959 launched Gunter Grass as an author of international repute. Bitter and impassioned, it delivers a scathing dissection of the years from 1925 to 1955 through the eyes of Oskar Matzerath, the dwarf whose manic beating of the toy of his retarded childhood fantastically counterpoints the accumulating horrors of Germany and Poland under the Nazis.
About the Author
(Photo by Wikipedia) Gunter Grass was born in the Free City of Danzig (present-day Gdansk, Poland) on October 16, 1927.
Grass attended the Danzig gymnasium Conradinum before becoming a Luftwaffenhelfer (Air Force “helper”) at the tender age of 16. He also conscripted into the Reichsarbeitsdienst (National Labor Service) then volunteered for submarine service with Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine. Grass was a part of the Nazi movement and was part of the Waffen-SS, the armed wing of Nazi Party’s SS (Schutzstaffel) Organization. His unit functioned as a regular Panzer division until April 20, 1945, when he was wounded. He was captured in Marienbad (now Mariánské Lázně, Czech Republic) and sent to a U.S. prisoner-of-war camp in Bad Aibling, Bavaria. It wasn’t until 2006 that Grass revealed his part in the Waffen-SS.
Post-war, Grass worked in a mine and also received a training in stonemasonry. At the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, he studied sculpture and graphics which would later on prove useful in his latter careers as an author, graphic designer and sculptor. He also held the presidency of the Academy of Arts, Berlin from 1983 to 1986.
Undoubtedly, The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel, 1959) is Grass’ most renowned work. Together with Cat and Mouse (Katz und Maus, 1961), and Dog Years (Hundejahre, 1963), they are collectively called as the Danzig Trilogy. His other works include The Flounder (Der Butt, 1977), My Century (Mein Jahrhundert, 1999) and Crabwalk (Im Krebsgang, 2002).
Grass passed away last April 13, 2015.