Title: The Tin Drum
Author: Gunter Grass
Date Of Version Reviewed: 2004
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Much like the stonecutter in his novel The Tin Drum,Gunter Grass carved this masterpiece out of solid granite; a masterpiece that will go down in history as one of the greatest post-war novels of all time. Oskar Matzerath, the dwarf drummer boy, is the ultimate unreliable narrator who guides us through his life pre-birth all the way through his wild chaotic life. The combination of allegory, myth and legend cements it as one of the pre-eminent pieces of magical realism. With that it is hard to say that this isn’t easy piece of work for the reader. At times Oskar jumps back and forth between first and third person narratives and there is an element of contradiction throughout his tale. For one to truly appreciate the talent of Grass one must appreciate the many mini stories which make up this classic.
On publication the public opinion for The Tin Drum was mixed. Some believed it was blasphemous whilst the sexualised content left much to be desired by the relatively conservative European readers. It was only in later years that the novel was accepted as a genuine piece of literature around the world. At times the story is convoluted; particularly the passages within the mind of the protagonist which can be hard to follow. However it is an understatement to claim that the imagery of eel infested horses heads, war scenes in Polish post offices and masturbation in a nurses wardrobe will not stay with the reader for years to come. Whereas other novels have not got the right mix when it comes to sexuality, the tin drum walks the tight rope between artistic and obscene perfectly.
One has to wonder what impression Grass wanted the reader to have of his main character Oskar. It would be fair to say that Oscar is not always the most agreeable character; with his screaming outbursts at the attempted removal of his drum to the dismissal of the dead as justanother life lost, it can be hard for the reader to empathise with him at a deep level. It is as though Oskar has a licence to treat other people unfairly because of his dwarfism and he rarely demonstrates any level of empathy around his actions. What I found interesting was the alternative reality which Oscar makes for himself, believing that he had a part in the deaths of many of his family members. The final few chapters – which I will not spoil – are somewhat bizarre but bring the novel to a relatively easy close.
There are political and religious undertones within The Tin Drum. The conflict between Poland and Germany and the different political opinions of his family members is narrated by Oscar in debt. He refers to Jewish and Christian beliefs of God and Satan – particularly when he refers to himself as Jesus and later Satan in the novel. Interestingly Grass admitted later in his life that he was a part of the Hitler youth group which had strong Nazi influences.
Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999 with the tin drum being his most famous piece of work.
Final thought: any fan of the magical realism genre will appreciate the talent on display within the tin drum. Understanding the unreliable narrator and the many stories within the novel greatly enhances the experience for the reader. It can be heavy going in places however the novel as a whole is greatly rewarding for those that put the time and effort into reading this piece of work.
What the folks at Goodreads said…
“The crazy characters are intersting and funny at first, but there’s no connection between them, and after a while their strangeness gets boring and repetitive. I really wanted to like this book, and I know a lot of people love it, but I’m never reading this one again.” Dan 2/5
“Oskar, the who boy who stopped growing in order to avoid becoming a greengrocer, is in the most original characters in literature.” Inderjit Sanhera 4/5
“It’s a 600 page book and neither its persistent eccentricity nor its much more intermittent moments of brilliance can hoist it to the classic status it more than capably flirts with.” Michael 3/5
“The book was quirky, dazzling, filled with innuendo about religion and Nazi Germany. Sometimes shocking sometimes poetic…always surprising.” Nancy Burns 4/5