There are books that I like, books that I like a lot, and books that kind of slap you upside the head and whisper fiercely in your ear, “Now THIS is a book. THIS is great writing. THIS is how it is done.”
The Tin Drum is still muttering in my ear, for many reasons. It’s when I start muttering back that things get a bit sticky.
It is a delicious example of what we might call magic realism, a first-person narration by what soon becomes apparent is an unreliable narrator, Oskar Matzerath. The book’s first sentence:
Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution;
lassoed me in and never stopped enthralling me from then on. Oskar starts off by first telling about his grandmother who wore 4 skirts, one on top of another, all the color of potatoes. She had five, and changed the order of the layers daily, washing the dirtiest one every week. She is siting by a field, baking potatoes in a fire when she sees a man fleeing the authorities. She allows him to hide under her voluminous skirts, and Oskar would have us believe that his mother was conceived that day.
Set in the then free state of Danzig, which lay between Poland and Germany, the story continues, until his own birth, where we are told that he determined at his baptism never to grow, and when he heard he would be given a tin drum on this third birthday, determined to deserve such a wondrous prize.
On his third birthday, he did indeed receive his tin drum, and for some reason I never quite understood, threw himself down the stairs that day, and from that time on, never grew any more than his 3 year old height.
We learn of the love triangle between his mother, and a friend whom she did not marry because he was Polish (and would possibly be on the wrong side of the war issue as even then, pre-1940-s there was much Nazism afoot, but instead married Matzerath, and continued to run and expand her mother’s grocery store.
As the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that Oskar is a …. oh, crumb… what is the PC word? Midget? Dwarf? Little Person? but he doesn’t speak, and maintains his 3 year old persona as a front, from which ensue some mighty mysterious activities. He learns, when someone tried to take his drum from him, to scream bloody murder, at which point he actually shattered glass, a skill which he deliberately hones to great advantage and which he called ‘singshatter’.
It is funny, and goofy, and crazy, and then comes the Nazis and the jokes become the kind like you make when you are trying not to cry instead. The underlying pain and sadness are bearable — but just.
He meets another Little Person who advises him to never be in front of the grandstand, but always be either on it on underneath it. Oskar goes to a Brownshirt rally that his father is involved in, and situates himself and his drum under the grandstand. When the Army band comes to make its entrance, Oskar drums a different beat, a happy, non-martial beat, confuses the band, everyone begins dancing, and the rally is a disaster.
Oskar falls in love, fathers a child, loses almost everyone to the grasp of death, and still survives.
The language is magical, the rhythm and cadence of the sentences compelling, the story artful and ingenuous all at once. The rhythm of Oskar’s life is rapped out on his drum It is a tour de force. Wait. I don’t even know what that means. Hold on a mo while I go find out. Talk amongst yourselves. I’m back. Tour de force – an exceptional achievement by an artist, author, or the like, that is unlikely to be equaled by that person or anyone else; an impressive performance or achievement that has been accomplished or managed with great skill. Yep, that’s what it is alright. Impressive.
I’m widening my literary horizons by reading authors who do not write in English, and whose stories are not set in North America. Grass is the third German author, the other two being The Clown by Heinrich Boll, and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Of the three, this is by far my favorite.
A note here about the translator, who even has his own section at the end of the book. Breon Mitchell has put back sections and phrases, sentences and nuances left out by the previous translator. It is magnificent, and is a joy to read.
The Tin Drum won the Academy Award 1979 for best foreign language Film, and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999, citing his frolicsome black fables which portray the forgotten face of history
Frolicsome black fables. Yes, I think that certainly covers it.