# 22 Die Blechtromme (The Tin Drum), G. Grass, 1959.
The list so far:
Simply put, that’s hell of a novel!
In this day and age, when nothing seems to be unexpected I’m still impressed by the strength of Grass’ writing. This book has enough will-power to make you go through it, not that it should need to do that. You’ll be more than willing to lose yourself in it.
The writing style is individual, a bit of German heaviness, a bit of exciting freedom of running forward without looking. The main character, the ceaselessly drumming dwarf is, again, one of his kind. Small and restless, he keeps playing and keeps playing, letting the world revolve around him.
It’s this type of a genius who is a freak by his looks but also enough of a gigantic personality that all those important historic events have to be put behind him, in the background. Oscar is strong and determined keeps going through his path, barely noticing even the World War, never letting go of the leading role and of his drum. He just drums along. Here’s an example of an artist who doesn’t try to sing about what’s hot right now, he is too focused on the craft.
Grass doesn’t actually avoid grand historical events, but
he deliberately places them at the periphery of our
field of view—his novel is like a movie in which key
scenes take place in the background, while the
foreground is filled with banality and Felliniesque
Catch a glimpse of pre-war Gdansk, a quite problematic family situation, yet another out-of-place character. Oscar is placed in between nations, with no stable relations to anyone, ending up with only a few, washed-out friends.
It is, furthermore, an interesting take on the relation between a gifted individual and history. A curious struggle, as Oscar from his side tries to ignore the great events of his times and on his journey follows only intuition. Yet the history takes its revenge. It keeps throwing people and situations into his way so that he is never let to settle down or at least find his true self, whatever this might mean. As an artist who challenged the gods, like Odysseus he is thrown on an everlasting trip, living in Poland, Germany, France yet finally his energy and luck run out and the final punishment is due – Oscar ends in a metal institution, no wife and kids like his Greek predecessor. On the other hand it’s he who had way more fun on the way.
Maybe a point is that you need to stay a child so see, hear and create such things. To be an artist, an original, declared one, one needs to eschew the responsibilities to the society, family and nation. Joyce has showed just that. And to die alone in the end because this is the price which has to be stressed.
Oscar is close to committing supernatural feats, his scream breaks glass, he calls himself Jesus at one point, he always knows how to get around – but he’s always looking for something else too or just the fate is quite playful, never lets him stabilize, always plotting new hardships. But also, small and hard to notice, a peeping-Tom, he is literally in a position to scrutinize everyone else, he sees all those good and bad people who are equally bruised after confrontation with the forces much greater than they can imagine. A diary of turbulent times, isn’t it? A bildungsroman with a boy who never grew up, who even couldn’t get a chance to do it.
A lot of Goya motives in here. A lone individual, a colossus in terms of his determination and vision, there is madness too, and pain, there is death, blood and lack of communication on every step. No stable relationships, only short times of carnival happen. Or it’s just one everlasting carnival, but a dark, surreal one.
Oscar doesn’t mention Goya, he doesn’t see his life as a bottomless pit like Poe, he works hard for his few good memories, he is a man of action not deliberation. But it also might seem like he puts a lot of his narrative effort to bring in some light, where it’s especially hard to find it. He’s settling himself between Goethe and Rasputin, quite accurately I’d say, he’s both a lonely poet, always on road looking for home and love, as well as a skilled rhetorician, eager to put his charm on girls, which, however is not that easy for Oscar but he doesn’t care much about people anyway. Still he never misses a chance of adolescent love, a short but unique passion in clouds of some funny, puffy powder.
The story is full of half-references and half-allusions, half-symbols so that you never know how to look at things. Chose your own way. In the most literal reading it is still, a fascinating novel, Grass storytelling abilities are up with the best. It is a book you don’t have to over-interpret or over-do; it’s alright to just float form sentence to sentence. Grass makes no mistakes stylistically.
But it’s Grass’s dazzling use of language that sets The Tin Drum apart, as he spins a dense verbal web alive with wordplay and innovation. It’s no coincidence that Oskar enjoys a stint with a jazz band, as there is an uninhibited, free-flowing musicality to the telling of his life story. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/nov/08/tin-drum-gunter-grass-review
Hundreds of unforgettable details, Grass is just so good with this! He has visions! The head of a dead horse with an eel inside (!), one of the weirdest suicide methods put to practice by Oscar’s mother (fish-connected too) , the scars on the back that told stories, the night tempting of civilians by breaking shop widows in front of them, the onion orgies, the sexual powder, the grandma’s endless skirts, and so and so and so on. Here is a story bound to burn into your memory.