Whimsical, dazzling, reflective, gruesome, saddening. Any number of adjectives could be selected to portray the impact of this book. The Tin Drum was nothing what I had expected and much more than what I could have ever wanted. Why so? I was first exposed to the existence of this book years ago when Grass won the Nobel Prize and I have picked it up many times during my book store browsing. However, my ignorance about Grass and the subject matter of the German text created an aura of intimidation that impeded my hesitant desire to read this landmark. After now having finally finished this lengthy work, I’ll admit that in the simple act of picking up and browsing the book it isn’t easy to get a quick understanding about the content of the story. From the opening pages the novel reveals a narrator who is “an inmate in a mental hospital” with a “keeper [who] is watching [and] never lets me out of his sight.” The tone of these opening lines implies that the reader should get ready for a dark book, a story of incarceration and madness with potential political implications relevant to the East German communist state. Those opening lines are unfortunately off setting from the rest of the novel, for if you give it a chance, The Tin Drum reveals that it isn’t any of those things.
Then what is it? Although it starts with its central narrator locked away in a mental institution, less than 5 percent of the book actually touches upon the narrator’s state of imprisonment or the events that lead towards his incarceration. Told in reflection of the past, The Tin Drum is a partially a generational novel that portrays the struggles and triumphs of a German-Polish family that lived through the division and strife of the Nazi years. However, this isn’t a mere factual representation of historical Nazi Germany or a successive generational story. The Tin Drum is profoundly unique because the narrator’s voice is one that is both wise and observant and ignorant and childishly selfish at the same time. Oskar Matzerath or Oskar Bronski (his surname changes dependent upon who he acknowledges as his biological father) is a child that decided to stop growing at the age of three. Stunted in height and ability to interact with others, he is obsessed with his toy drum above all else that goes on around him. The drum is protection from the obvious and ongoing affair between his mother and his uncle. The drum is his solace from the piercing judgement of his Catholic upbringing. When his uncle is caught in a firefight with the S.S. and the Polish rebellion, Oskar cares more for this drum that for his wounded uncle and supposed father. The drum is the center of his being, yet it is his limitation too, for when he buries the drum in his father’s grave he gains the power to grow beyond his stunted 3 year old, 3 foot height self to become a 4 foot, hunchbacked 20 year old.
Obviously there is some strange stuff going on here in a text that blends magical storytelling alongside history of Germany’s rise and fall from Nazism. In addition to his stunted growth, his ability to understand adults at the moment of his birth, and obsession with his toy drum, Oskar possesses a voice capable of shattering glass through his high-pitched screaming when he is displeased or loses possession of his drum. These magical moments may have really occurred in Oskar’s world, or they may be made up fabrications and excuses from the narrator’s point of view as he reflects on his life from his locked up cell. The reader is only asked to take them as they are and accept Oskar’s story for what it is, the story of a young many who lived through the Nazi times as both German and Pole, split by the politics of his country but not part of those politics. He lives as a voice of criticism for these blemished times, but his criticism is unique because it is a voice that speaks not through rebellion or suffering, but through the balance of total awareness and childlike oblivion.
There are definitely moments of profound sadness that impact Oskar, such as the early impact of an event when his mother was so disgusted at a man’s gruesome technique at fishing for eels with a decapitated horse’s head that she plunged into a fit self-torture gorging on rotten fish until her death. There are tender and awkward moments blended into Oskar’s love affair with the woman who would bear his child but marry his father. And there is the moment when Oskar’s father is executed before his eyes by the Russian army since Oskar revealed his father’s hidden S.S. pin. These moments of sadness are told with lyrical and memorable impact from Oskar’s voice, yet the stunted Oskar reflects on these moments as distinct and inescapable, the rhythms of the beating drum that is his life. Although suffering surrounds him, his voice is one that drums on, unimpeded by the weight of sorrow.
One of the most touching moments in the novel occurred during Oskar’s adulthood in postwar Germany, when he was playing in a jazz band at the Onion Cellar. The Onion Cellar was a popular club where the patrons ceremoniously cut up onions together to share in a collective public tearful cry in an effort to reawaken their emotions blunted from the postwar reality of their shattered lives. Following the collective cry the patrons often digressed into orgiastic pleasure due to the intimacy shared through their tears. Through his drumming, like a pied-piper, Oskar leads them from the hedonistic towards the innocence of childishness, releasing them from their need to cry and seek out orgasmic pleasure. This sequence is intensely poignant towards the novel’s artistic statement, for Oskar himself is a blunted individual stuck in childhood, unable to fully experience the world he observes.
It is through these moments that The Tin Drum stands out as a landmark work of art. It isn’t a perfect book though. Oskar is not the perfect narrator and he is often unreliable. In his storytelling he reveals weaknesses and obsessions that are quite disgusting, such as his obsession with a woman nurse who lives in the apartment where he rents a room. He never sees this woman yet he goes through her belongings when she is away at work and when he finally does meet her, he nearly rapes her in a drunken fit of passion. His regression towards childhood during the early years of the Nazi invasion demonstrate his selfishness as he cares more for his supply of drums than he does for the imprisonment of the Jewish toy shop owner and during a gunfight he is focused on his drum more than the death of his uncle’s coworker. These moments of selfishness reveal a complex person, one that may not necessarily be telling the entire truth about the past and his life, which lends an chilling implication towards the novel’s holistic effect.