When I was younger the only musical instrument we had in the house was an old acoustic guitar of my Dad’s. Despite an interest in music, I was never particularly drawn to that guitar, finding it a snivelling and cowardly instrument; an acoustic, I thought to myself, cowers and sighs and feels sorry for itself, and that wasn’t at all what I wanted to express. No, I wanted to hammer something, to make a noise. Quite evidently, at that age, and in those circumstances, what best suited my feelings was the drums, on which I imagined I could pound out the rhythm of my frustration and fear. Yet we couldn’t afford anything so extravagant, so I abused the old guitar instead, until it was fit for no purpose other than kindling.

Llittle Oskar Matzerath, the central character, and narrator, of Günter Wilhelm Grass’ renowned German novel, is, however, a little more fortunate. Upon his birth his mother promises him a drum by his third birthday, and, in accordance with that promise, one is duly given to him. As the title of the novel suggests, the instrument plays a pivotal role in the boy’s life and the work as a whole. Oskar quickly bonds with it, finding in it, much like I hoped I would, a way of expressing himself; indeed, it acts almost in place of speech as a means of communication, so that when he commences his tale on ‘virgin white paper’ he appears to be suggesting that the drum is telling it for him [something that is not unknown in certain African cultures, where the drum is used to communicate over long distances by mimicking patterns of speech], or that it at least allows him to tell it.

“If I didn’t have my drum, which, when handled adroitly and patiently, remembers all the incidentals that I need to get the essential down on paper, and if I didn’t have the permission of the management [of the mental institution] to drum on it three or four hours a day, I’d be a poor bastard with nothing to say…”

One must credit Grass, because Oskar’s drum is the most ingenious literary prop. Its versatility is astounding; it has so many functions in the text beyond being a child’s favourite toy. Most surprisingly, it acts as an accompaniment to the work, by which I mean that one cannot help but hear it throughout one’s reading, not only because the Oskar in the story is continually bashing it, but because we know that the Oskar in the asylum is also beating it while he narrates. So when the action speeds up one finds oneself assailed by a frantic pounding; in slower moments, the action is soundtracked with a soft patter. In this way, the drum not only mirrors Oskar’s moods, and the action of the novel, but your own moods and experience of the book as well, even though one cannot literally hear it! It’s a pretty extraordinary thing.

One might also want to consider why Grass chose a drum, for there are numerous instruments that can express feelings and set tempo. It is, first of all, the oldest known instrument; and is considered to be the root of music, perhaps also the sound of nature. There is, then, something primordial about it, it, in a sense, harks back to man’s earliest, least sophisticated state. One must remember that Oskar for much of the novel is pretending to be a simpleton, and yet considers himself superior to everyone else. In this way, the drum symbolises how other people see him, but also symbolises how he sees them and the world. Furthermore, the drum is, of course, associated with the military, specifically with parades, marches, and rallies. While The Tin Drum is not solely focused on World War 2, for the book spans a larger historical period than that conflict, it certainly plays a significant role in the text. So it isn’t a stretch to suggest that Oskar’s pounding heralds, so to speak, and could be said to mimic, the army’s jackbooted marching.

As one would perhaps expect of a novel at least partly concerned with World War 2, destruction is one of the major themes; indeed, it is in relation to this theme that one begins to understand the wider significance of this grotesque little drummer boy. His harsh, doomy-sounding and violent [to play it is, in most cases, to strike it] instrument of choice, his madness, as well as his ability to shatter glass with his voice, could be said to represent not only the collective insanity of the German people, but the literal destruction of Germany and the violence of Hitler’s ideology. Certainly, Oskar’s ‘singshattering’ foreshadows, and could even be said to be responsible for, Kristallnacht, which is invariably seen as the first co-ordinated step towards the Final Solution and the Holocaust.

There are, furthermore, repeated references to fire. In the very beginning, we are introduced to Oskar’s grandmother, Anna; she comes to marry a man called Joseph Koljaiczek, who was once a kind of Polish revolutionary and, specifically, an arsonist. Moreover, Oskar’s drum is said to have a pattern of red and white flames; in this way, one could say the drum itself, not only Oskar with his voice, promises destruction. The pattern on the tin drum is also evidence of one of the book’s other preoccupations, which is Poland. Red and white is, of course, the colour of their flag. I must admit that I am no expert on Polish history and the country’s relations with Germany, but I do know a little about Danzig, where part of the novel is set. Danzig [or Gdańsk as it is now known] is a Polish city on the Baltic coast that was once ruled by Germany. More pertinently, Hitler used the issue of the status of the city as a pretext for attacking Poland.

“I look for the land of the Poles that is lost to the Germans, for the moment at least. Nowadays the Germans have started searching for Poland with credits, Leicas, and compasses, with radar, divining rods, delegations, and moth-eaten provincial students’ associations in costume. Some carry Chopin in their hearts, others thoughts of revenge. Condemning the first four partitions of Poland, they are busily planning a fifth; in the meantime flying to Warsaw via Air France in order to deposit, with appropriate remorse, a wreath on the spot that was once the ghetto. One of these days they will go searching for Poland with rockets. I, meanwhile, conjure up Poland on my drum. And this is what I drum: Poland’s lost, but not forever, all’s lost, but not forever, Poland’s not lost forever.”

The Tin Drum, I imagine it is clear by now, is a complex work, one that is on the surface a kind of bildungsroman, but which engages with numerous political, philosophical issues, and is full of motifs and symbolism and allusions. Some of this is relatively easy to get your head around and some of it is slightly more slippery. For example, there is a lot of duality in the novel that I’m not sure I can fully explain – the city of Danzig, which is both Polish and German; Oskar having two fathers, etc – except in relation to each other. One such, that of good and evil or Jesus and Satan, strikes me as particularly interesting. Of course, that a novel concerned with World War 2 would be exploring good and evil isn’t surprising, but it is maybe more eyebrow-raising that the narrator seems to come down on the side of the horned-one. For example, during his baptism Oskar is asked to renounce the Devil and he refuses. In fact, if I was to compare Oskar to any other literary character it would be the charismatic Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. I don’t think this is a wild swing in the dark either. At one stage, Oskar takes to cutting holes in shop windows, not in order to steal himself but to try and tempt others into doing so.


[From the film Die Blechtrommel, dir. by Volker Schlondorff]

It strikes me as odd that in the few reviews or articles that I’ve come across online not one of them has used the term unreliable narrator; it is almost as though Oskar’s voice [or drum!] is so persuasive that readers take what he says on face value, regardless of how strange it is, preferring instead to label the book magical realist. That really doesn’t make much sense to me. Oskar, in the very first line of the novel, reveals that he is currently in an insane asylum, so one has to doubt, for example, his claim that he made a conscious decision to stop growing, or that his voice can shatter glass, and so on. Moreover, even if he wasn’t apparently mad, one would still call into question what Oskar says, because he makes it clear that he has one eye on creating an interesting and dramatic narrative; and he certainly gives the impression of withholding and manipulating information. He also, for what it’s worth, very obviously has a high opinion of himself, despite his short-comings [boom, boom], or rather because of them; that someone might compensate for any physical defects with a show of supreme self-confidence, or that they may lie in order to appear more exciting and more interesting, or even that they may want to turn these defects into magical gifts, does not seem completely unbelievable. None of this puts me in mind of magical realism, where the idea is that the genuinely magical exists side-by-side, so to speak, with the ordinary.

Before wrapping this up, I want to mention Grass’ prose and, by extension, the translation. I have read The Tin Drum twice now; the first time was in Ralph Manheim’s translation, which I enjoyed and, not reading German myself, wouldn’t have criticised at all. However, I chose, in re-reading the book, to try Breon Mitchell’s newer version. Now, generally speaking I do not like modern translations. I think they are often egotistical, serving the translator, with their own odd quirks, more than the work itself, so that regardless of the work in question, or who authored it, one can always tell who translated it; I also think that modern translators very rarely have a great command of English, or even, in some cases, an adequate one [I’m looking at you Pevear & Volokhonsky]. Yet I was hugely impressed by Breon Mitchell’s rendering of The Tin Drum. It’s fresher, and funnier than Manheim’s; it’s more alive and poetic. I accept that it is possible that I simply do not remember Manheim’s translation in sufficient detail, but I can certainly recall my reaction it to. For example, I did not see anything of Joyce or Nabokov or Bely in it, but I did see echoes of all those writers in Mitchell’s version, which is playful and makes frequent use of alliteration, word play, and switches between third and first person narration, and so on. As a consequence of all this, his translation would be tougher to read, I’d imagine, but the rewards are far greater.

In any case, although this review in nearly 2000 words long I know I have barely disturbed the surface of the work. Oskar’s affairs, his stint as a Jazz musician and model, the role of the circus, outsiderism, the onion bar where people go to cry, the HORSE’S HEAD AND THE EELS [don’t ask – I could barely keep anything down for a week after reading that passage]: all of these things, and more, could be explored in greater detail, but I fear you have perhaps only been skim-reading since about the third paragraph. But, if, out a sense of politeness, I have your full attention once again I would strongly urge you to read The Tin Drum, to put yourselves in Oskar’s dainty hands for a week or two. And if you have read it before? Read it again.


One comment

  1. Haha, “if out of a sense of politeness, i have your full attention once again”…
    You caught me. I did skim a little. (sorry). Not because im not interested in your take on Oskar, but only because i wanted to hear more, your opinion on the new translation, which i just ordered.
    I’ve been wanting to re read the tin drum for a few months now, and i agree, it’s almost a must that this book be re read. And never more timely than now.
    Thank you for your thoughts. I would have liked it if you had “disturbed the surface” even more.

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