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The Tin Drum (Günter Grass; Breon Mitchell translation)

February 6, 2010

I read this novel shortly after reading Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children, and it was hard not to keep comparing the two works when I first started Grass’ novel. There are a lot of similarities — too many to ignore — but given Rushdie’s statements about how much Grass’ novel influenced him and given his ideas about the “empire” writing back, it started to make more sense as not only the similarities, but also the differences began piling up. It’s really interesting to think of what Rushdie might be doing, especially when you consider how much the “collective shame” of Germany following WWII can be connected to post-Emergency India. It’s also interesting to think of the ways key symbols act within each novel (the tin drum in Grass’, the silver spittoon in Rushdie’s; the refusal to grow in Grass’, the rapid growth in Rushdie’s; the loss of the ability to singshatter glass in Grass’, the loss of the All-India Radio in Rushdie’s; the importance of the apartment complex and its inhabitants in Grass’, the importance of the housing compound and its inhabitants in Rushdie’s — there are so many more, but these are some of the most interesting to me).

Moving away from this book-to-book comparison, Grass’ novel has a lot to offer on its own. There are some interesting things happening with form here — most of the chapters are fairly straightforward, but there are three chapters where the form of the narration is changed. In one, Oskar writes the chapter in the form of a script; in another, he turns his pen over to Bruno (his watcher) who writes most of the chapter; and in yet another, he includes Vittlar’s court testimony as the way he relates the story of his arrest, rather than narrating it himself. The chapters are randomly placed, and none of them occur in the first book…but they’re still interesting and I’m trying to figure out what I make of them. Partly, I think it’s significant that they happen later on because I feel that Oskar’s narration becomes less reliable the further into his story he progresses, so that’s one thing. Also, I think that as he physically grows later in the novel, he loses some of his more creative capacities (along with the ability to singshatter glass) and the fact that he begins to allow others to tell his story goes along with the loss of his more creative abilities. However, the fact that he keeps drumming is an indication that he hasn’t lost all of those abilities, but toward the end of the novel his drumming is primarily used to help others (and himself, in the case of how he uses it to help him write his autobiography) return to and relive their childhoods.

I’m really intrigued by this idea of a narrator writing his story from the confines of a mental hospital, especially when you add the fact that he really doesn’t want to leave it. From the very beginning, he marks himself as an abject figure: “Granted, I’m an inmate in a mental institution; my keeper watches me, scarcely lets me out of sight, for there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can’t see through blue-eyed types like me” (3). In fact, mentally unstable characters fill the pages of the novel, and the days of Oskar’s life. Crazy Leo/Weird Willem is marked by his very name, and his inseparability from the cemetery also places him in that liminal space between life and death. Oskar’s friends — Klepp who tests his health by never leaving his bed, Vittlar who turns Oskar in so he can see his own name in the papers, Fajngold who speaks directly to his murdered family, and even Oskar’s presumptive son Kurt who clearly has some severe issues with rage — are a motley crew who are mostly mad, but also fairly harmless. What does it mean that Grass’ characters are so rarely sane? I want to draw a connection between these madnesses — which also multiply in the post-war part of the novel — and the atrocities of the Second World War. Is Grass trying to make a statement about the effects of unleashing such madness during the war by presenting us with characters who are overcome by their craziness in the aftermath of that war? Is he illustrating a point about what happens when you try to move on from an era of such widespread destruction and devastation? Or is he trying to show us that there’s a cruel madness in every person, and the war was only one manifestation of that madness that is always just beneath the surface? While I like this last hypothesis, especially since Oskar is so utterly devoid of conscience both before and after the war, I can’t help but think that The Onion Cellar contradicts it and points us in the direction of the nation’s recovery from the events their country set in motion.

Whatever his ultimate point about the war, Grass’ novel certainly seems to have something to say about men and women. The representation of women is unflattering at best — they’re often the passive objects of male desire, and also tend to be sexually promiscuous and indecisive. That’s not to say that the portrayal of men is flattering — it’s not. Most of the men are rather inept, and unable to satisfy the women in their lives. They either run away, die, or fail to “man up” in the ways the women in their lives would appreciate. I think this, too, comes back to the war, but I’m at a loss to say exactly how I think it relates.

The Tin Drum was a really intense (and dense) read, but I’m glad I read it. I can see how it fits into the canon of magical realist fiction, but it’s also different than a lot of more contemporary magical realist novels I’ve read. The novel is quite bleak, offering characters few or no chances for happiness. Most of the time, characters’ chances have passed, and they are left to live out the rest of their lives in misery (or take their own lives, like Greff the greengrocer). All love affairs end in death, unwanted pregnancy, or unhappy marriages. Many sexual relationships only exist as a symptom of another, deeper problem. Characters who seem like decent people have a hard time surviving, and characters who are rotten to the core come closest to prospering. Oskar himself is thoroughly unlikable, and reading his life as narrated by him is not entirely a pleasant affair. Compelling, yes. Intriguing, yes. Disgusting at times, atrocious at others. But ultimately enlightening and bewildering. After the adventure of reading this book, I still think it’s worth reading at least once. I think I’ll end up reading it again, in all reality.

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