The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Harvill Secker, 2009, 588 p + iii p introduction. Translated from the German Die Blechtrommel by Breon Mitchell. First published by Herrmann Luchterhand Verlag GMBH 1959.
Borrowed from a threatened library.

 The Tin Drum cover

The Tin Drum’s first words are, “Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution,” – about as clear a marker of an unreliable narrator as you’re liable to find. This voice wanders randomly between Oskar and I to describe his experiences, often within the same passage, even the same sentence. Of uncertain parentage, “I” never quite decides if he is Oskar Matzerath or maybe Oskar Bronski. The book’s starting scene predates his birth with the conception of his mother, under his grandmother’s skirts in a potato field near Danzig, by a fire-raiser, fugitive from justice, who adopts a pseudonym. This concatenation of circumstances and attributes is typical of the novel as a whole, which is by no means an easy read but will repay the attention a dutiful reader gives it.

Oskar is a precocious baby, able to understand things while newly born, in particular his mother’s promise to buy him a drum for his third birthday. On this happy event he decides to stop growing, staging a fall down the cellar stairs (blamed on father Matzerath for leaving the door open) to account for it. He also has the ability to shatter glass by screaming, a tactic he frequently employs to avoid being separated from his beloved drum. When Oskar’s first day in school ends less than well (shattering the teacher’s glasses and the school windows) he never goes there again. Part of the scene’s translation is rendered as, “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.” Though the couplet’s wording may indeed have arisen around the time, a variation on an older rhyme, I would be interested to know what the original German was. Oskar goes through unnumbered amounts of his red and white tin drums in the course of the book, being able to affect people’s actions through his drumming. This is only one of the many aspects of magic realism which pervade the novel, another example is that of a green ship’s figurehead which is somehow a bringer of doom. Oskar pretends to be unable to speak but gets some education from a neighbour who reads to him from books on Rasputin and Goethe, the twin poles from which he views the world. Later, from opposite walls of the flat where Oskar is brought up, pictures of Hitler and Beethoven glower at each other.

The perspective allows Grass to approach Oskar’s life and encounters with the world at an oblique angle. Given the times he was writing about this is perhaps as well, the distorting effect, its layering of grotesquerie, in part shielding the reader from the full impact of events which might otherwise be too disturbing. For Grass knows what he is doing. The text’s meanderings and reflections underline the madness of the times. As might be expected from such a full-on literary endeavour there is a full measure, here, of love, sex and death. Too much focus on sex apparently, when the novel was first published. Sexual encounters in the book are frequently bizarre and are often described with their accompanying far from romantic nitty-gritty. (I note here that even in between-the-wars Germany it seems a Scout Master – later subsumed into the Hitler youth – could be overly “fond” of his charges.)

Though Oskar’s life is related almost linearly in retrospect from the viewpoint of his thirty year old self lying in bed in the mental institution, within The Tin Drum’s pages there is cycle and recycle, events being come back to again and again, emphasising the predilections of Oskar’s life. Time seems to be fluid yet static, streaming past Oskar, yet carrying him headlong. Events rush past him but he instigates them too.

Along with Oskar’s story we are also provided with a history of Danzig, its many layings to waste, the stories of the peoples of its hinterland plus the degradation of Germany in the mid-twentieth century. “An entire gullible nation believed faithfully in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really the Gasman.” Of the war situation there are sly references to “improving the army’s situation with planned withdrawals,” and a soldier is said to be, “spending time in Courland.” After the war Oskar I restored to growth (another blow on the head as the catalyst.) He is misshapen but manages to make a living from drumming. He, “discussed collective guilt with Catholics and Protestants, shared that guilt with all who thought: Let’s get it over with now, be done with it, and later, when things get better, there’ll be no need to feel guilty.”

Oskar observes variously, “Even bad books are books, and therefore holy,” “You have to keep the Muses at a distance, otherwise the Muse’s kiss will start to taste like everyday fare,” “Lost wars seldom if ever provide a museum with trophies.”

There is an afterword where Breon Mitchell writes about the translation process, saying original texts remain fresh but translations fade with time. Grass cared about translations and for each book gathered his translators together to discuss them and answer questions on their texts. This new translation of Die Blechtrommel apparently preserves all the sentence lengths from the German, and tries to replicate its awkward syntax, which the first translation didn’t. To translate such a complex novel is undeniably a difficult task and Mitchell’s achievement is commendable. Nevertheless there are entries for Pedant’s corner:- All that was left to me were (all was,) fleur-de-lis (fleur-de-lys,) gas metre (meter,) at one point Oskar tells us the tin “rusted” (tin will corrode but does not form rust; only iron rusts,) a vicar ran the Catholic journeymen’s club (a vicar? Surely a priest?) Eight-comma-eights (in English these 88 mm [8.8 cm – rendered in German as 8,8 cm] anti-aircraft guns – but used particularly effectively as anti-tank guns – were known as eighty-eights,) sitz bath (my dictionary has sitz-bath,) doughboys (is a USian term for World War 1 enlisted men, not a German usage I’d have thought.) The Platters sing “The Great Pretender” in 1944 (The group didn’t form till 1952, that song wasn’t released by them till 1955.)

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6 comments

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  1. Denis Cullinan

    You racked up some nice hits in the Pedant’s Corner.

    About 65 years I had a toy soldier that walked wobbling down a little ramp and was called “Danny the Doughty Doughboy.” I haven’t come across any occurrences of “doughboy” in a long, long time.

  2. jackdeighton

    Denis,
    Me neither. But then again I haven’t read anything about World War 1 for a long tme.

  3. stef

    Oskar is an unreliable narrator. “The Great Pretender” comes out while he’s in the hospital (1956), and his errant memory places it during the war. This is no weirder than referring to himself in the first and third persons, often in the same sentence.

    I haven’t read the following, but:

    Weyer, Anselm:
    ‚The Great Pretender’ und die ‚falschen Fünfziger’ auf Blech getrommelt. Die zeitliche Perspektive Oskar Matzeraths.
    In: Treibhaus. Jahrbuch für die Literatur der fünfziger Jahre 5/2009, S. 130-143.

  4. jackdeighton

    Stef,
    Thanks for looking in and commenting.
    Fair enough.
    Perhaps my reservation was that I could take all Oskar’s flights of fancy in the narrative – taking the first and third person thing as a given – but doubted that something so easily checkable would have been treated so casually. I also wondered how accessible US music (especially black US music) could have been to ordinary citizens in Germany during the Nazi years. I suppose it might depend on how far the US forces or BBC broadcasting signals penetrated.

  5. stef

    It is indeed somewhat odd. And I don’t have any proof. I just find it very hard to believe that Grass – so fastidious about his dates (the battle at the Polnische Post, Oskar’s performances in Normandy at D-Day, etc.) – would overlook something so obvious. As for black music during the war – definitely not – “Negermusik” was considered degenerate and was banned; prejudice against it last into the 60s. Interesting stuff.

  6. jackdeighton

    Stef,
    We seem to be of a similar mind here.

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