Book: The Tin Drum
Author: Günter Grass
Bookhad Rating: ❤❤❤❤❤
In the words of Günter Grass, to be human is to be childlike, curious, complex and immoral, and The Tin Drum (translated from the original German Die Blechtrommel) is all of these qualities at once. It is the autobiographical narration from his bed in a mental hospital of Oskar Matzerath, who decides to stop growing on his third birthday when he is gifted a tin drum and develops an obsession with playing his toy. In lyrical language and a tragically comic voice, Oskar takes us through his colourful childhood in the Polish coastal city of Danzig under Nazi occupation, the horrors faced by his family during the Second World War and finally, his rise to fortune in post-war Germany and his admission into a mental asylum.
The novel revolves around the lives of Oskar’s family, friends and neighbours who are involved in incidents as absurd as the characters are eccentric. There is his grandfather who is an arson artist, his grandmother under whose four skirts Oskar often likes to hide, his presumptive father and grocery store proprietor Matzerath, his mother and her lover Jan Bronski, and his stepmother Maria whom he is secretly in love with. Then there is Sigismund Markus, the Jewish seller of his tin drums, Meyn the alcoholic musician who lives on the top floor of Oskar’s apartment building, the waiter Herbert Truczinski and Greff the greengrocer who both die very strange deaths, Bebra the midget whose circus troupe Oskar works for, and his friends Klepp and Vittlar. The novel works because of the faultily chiselled characters with their ostensibly arbitrary motivations, peopling its pages, and the panoramic and vivid narrative that shifts from Danzig to Paris and Normandy to Düsseldorf against the background of wartime Europe.
The Tin Drum assumes a tone in which only mischievous children and mentally challenged persons think. Normal occurrences are hilarious as seen through Oskar’s eyes, while horrifying incidents are passed off as mundane. The language of the novel seems complicated at first, however one slowly starts enjoying it as one would a percussion solo on a bongo or a tin drum. A little must be said of the translation from the German, as two English versions exist today. The original translation by Ralph Manheim is more “polished” according to Grass himself, and I personally found it much more fun to read. The newer translation by Breon Mitchell, commissioned to commemorate fifty years of the book, sticks more faithfully to the German but ends up losing some of its quality in attempting to replicate the style.
If novels could be described as graphic art forms, The Tin Drum would be a caricature – a funny yet grotesque depiction of flawed human nature. It is a stunning debut to a career that went on to win Grass the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, and a masterpiece deserving to be called a contemporary classic.
– Written by Bookhad Member: Abhishek Rao
You can read more of and from Abhishek on his blog eraogenous zone.