Monday, November 30, 2020
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
German history obscured by nonsensical humor
The Tin Drum is the story of Oskar Matzerath, who is born in 1924 in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland). Oskar relates his story thirty years later from his bed in a mental hospital. Much like the city in which he was born, Oskar’s heritage is a mixture of Kashubian, Polish, and German. His mother has two lovers, and which of them is Oskar’s biological father is a matter of speculation throughout the book. At the age of three, two momentous events occur in Oskar’s life. First, he is given a tin drum as a birthday present. This drum becomes his lifelong companion and primary means of self-expression. Second, Oskar makes a conscious attempt to stop growing, thus suspending his physical development.
The Tin Drum occasionally provides a vivid glimpse of life in Danzig and Düsseldorf during the 1930s and ‘40s, but more often than not Grass opts for deliberately weird, disturbing, and satirical imagery that steers the narrative down a more comical and frivolous path. For example, Oskar discovers that he has the power to shatter glass with his screams. This is pleasantly surprising the first time it happens, but Grass trots out the same image ad nauseam, to the point where Oskar is developing this talent to ridiculous and tedious lengths. Meanwhile, members of the supporting cast begin committing suicide in bizarre ways, further divorcing the story from reality. As he grows up, Oskar becomes precociously horny, and despite his childlike appearance women seem to find him irresistible. This results in a number of sex scenes, all of which have something disgusting about them, such as his partner smells bad or is asleep during the act. Even in its repulsive or tragic moments, the novel is really too whimsical to be offensive, but it seems to constantly invite the reader to laugh at jokes that just aren’t very funny.
If The Tin Drum has a saving grace, it is Grass’s inventive use of language. He plays with words and phrases the way an innovative jazz musician experiments with notes and keys. This would be quite admirable were the book not so inordinately long and relentlessly repetitive. The novel feels like a self-indulgent exercise by an author more interested in hearing himself talk than in conveying anything meaningful to the reader. On the bright side, the 2009 translation by Breon Mitchell does an outstanding job of interpreting Grass’s complex verbal gymnastics into readable English prose.
Though normally I wouldn’t make such a recommendation, before you spend 20+ hours reading this book you might want to watch the movie to see if this story is really your cup of tea. The film adaptation only covers roughly the first two-thirds of the book, but is otherwise mostly faithful to the text. If you like the film and think you want to tackle the novel, be prepared that Grass’s gratuitous wordplay draws out every scene to five times its necessary length.
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