Beginning with the unforgettable words 'Granted: I'm an inmate in a mental institution', "The Tin Drum", the narrative of thirty-year-old Oskar Matzerath, is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. On his third birthday Oskar resolves to stunt his own growth at three feet, and on the same day he receives his first ...
Beginning with the unforgettable words 'Granted: I'm an inmate in a mental institution', "The Tin Drum", the narrative of thirty-year-old Oskar Matzerath, is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. On his third birthday Oskar resolves to stunt his own growth at three feet, and on the same day he receives his first tin drum. Wielding his drum and piercing scream as anarchic weapons, he draws forth memories from the past as well as judgements about the horrors, injustices, and eccentricities he observes through the long nightmare of the Nazi era. Oskar participates in the German post-war economic miracle - working variously in the black market, as an artist's model, in a troupe of travelling musicians - yet he remains haunted by the deaths of his parents, afflicted by his responsibility for past sins. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of publication, Harvill Secker, along with Grass' publishers all over the world, is bringing out a new translation of this classic novel. The acclaimed translator and scholar, Breon Mitchell, has drawn from many sources: from a wealth of detailed scholarship; from a wide range of newly available reference works; and from discussion with the author himself. After fifty years, "The Tin Drum" has, if anything, gained in power and relevance.
This novel deserves its reputation as a landmark work. It is innovative, amusing, haunting, musical and with an impressive storyline. There is a constant shift in the narration between the first- and third-person. In an essay Grass wrote, he says that sometimes Oskar wants to talk and sometimes not. Many readers seem to get carried away with the ?commentary on wartime Germany? but the real beauty lies within the prose and style. The initial setting is in an asylum and there one meets several important characters. The story is almost entirely a flashback, beginning with potato fields and the Polish region of Kashubia. The grandmother and her many skirts are memorable and some implied unusual sexual situations do keep the reader?s attention. The card game skat seems to constantly come up. Indeed, this is a connection between the characters in several parts, including one in which a post office is being bombed and one player?s life is ending. A scene with eels is at once revolting and arousing, with a woman accompanied by her husband, her lover and an eeler with a horsehead. Grass? skill with words is what sets the book apart. An entire chapter deals with a cat named Bismark and each paragraph begins by repeating the same phrase. This technique creates a rhythm that brings the reader sliding along. Rushdie?s Midnight?s Children makes use of this in chapters on snakes and ladders and saffron and green. Oskar?s musical talent affects many things and eventually leads to the formation of a jazz band. This turns up in the Dog Years. His relations with his sitter who becomes his father?s squeeze add another intriguing sexual aspect that is unexpected but extremely well expressed in terms of fizz powder and drum sticks. This type of thing happens often with Grass. The end returns to the asylum. The last few scenes of the novel are quite perplexing and still leave me wondering if I have followed Gunter completely. This is his first major book and later works seem to wrap up much better. This is an impressive work, in every way. One should continue with Cat and Mouse and the Dog Years. Apparently, there is more to be enjoyed when read in German, as the Kashubian dialect adds a wonderfully musical quality to the story. The translation is excellent, in my view and I would recommend this to any serious reader.
Apr 11, 2007
In The Tin Drum, Gunter Grass has written a slightly absurd, somewhat bizarre, and extremely engaging masterpiece. The autobiography of a mental patient born just before the Nazi's rise to power, The Tin Drum is a story of a willful outsider, one who simply refuses to grow any older, abhorring adults as he does.
One of the defining qualities of the book is the fact that it is told by the main character Oskar, a resident of a mental institution. It almost becomes a game, trying to figure out what really happened using only his account. To hear him tell it, he was fully mature intellectually from the moment he was born, and far superior to his "presumptive" fathers. He willfully decides to stunt his own growth - the fact that he fell down the stairs is a coincidence. Though he is a strange character of questionable mental stability, Oskar manages to make very perceptive statements about life and living it through the course of the book.
Grass's writing style is here very fitting. The narrative will often digress into a jazz-like fugue on a word or idea, mimicking Oskar's tin drum. My translation was by Ralph Manheim, and according to my German-speaking friend is faithful to the original. I think it is a wonderful translation, and only wish that I could read German, to capture the full effect of Grass's writing.
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