The Tin Drum (1959) – Günter GRASS

I started reading this about two months ago. I think that’s a record. I have nearly stopped reading it about four times, I’ve read several other novels, and I’d given up reading for about a week, it was frustrating me so much. However, I have finally finished it. And I have found the energy within me to review it. Not that this is going to be all bad. I think. Also, I know I usually avoid telling you what happens in these, but some important plot points are mentioned here, simply ’cause I can’t talk about the book without them.

Oskar Matzerath is a dwarf. Which is fine, except that at the age of three, he decided to stop growing, and did so, placing him in his currents ituation. On the same day, though, his mother gave to him a cheap tin drum, which he picks up with enthusiasm, and never lets go. Through his twisted, and quite frankly, nasty eyes, we see the small city-state of Danzig succumb to World War 2, to the Germans, and to Europe. Eventually, Oskar moves into Nazi Germany, where he becomes famous for his drumming, only to discover that his past is catching up with him.

To be honest, the above synopsis is not totally accurate. Though, to try and give some sort of idea of the plot of this novel is too hard to do in five lines. Suffice to say, this novel meticulously details the first thirty years of Oskar’s life, and it is pretty complicated. From his questionable fathers (yep, there are two of them), to his mother, to his grandmother, to the history of his grandfather, to his career (he goes through more jobs than Homer Simpson), to his insane drumming, this book has something for everyone. But is it any good? Does it deserve to win the Nobel Prize for “frolicsome black fables [that] portray the forgotten face of history”?

For me, at least, the whole of the Second World War took a backseat to Oskar’s insane journey. Important events are referenced, and indeed, Oskar takes part in many of them, but somehow, you can kind of forget that the war is really going on. Instead, we get this recurring conflict between art and warfare – Oskar becomes the embodiment of art, and how it suffers and mutates during wartime. As a musician, Oskar meets artists, sculptors, even tombstone engravers, who all contribute to the art of the war. It is these people that we and Oskar are interested in, those who continue their art through the war.

By far the biggest part of this book, however, is the tin drum. As a child, Oskar is obsessive about his drum, going so far as to, despite being under attack from the army, placing the safety of his drum before the safety of his first father, who eventually dies at the expense of this cheap, disposable bit of tin. It is the drum that becomes the symbol of childhood, that becomes the thing that Oskar must learn to reject and move on from, before he can fully mature. It is not until the death of his second father, in his early twenties, that he is able to reject the drum, and move on. Again, though, he picks the drum up in later life, and once again, the lure of innocence and childhood proves too powerful, though not just for Oskar this time – for his followers and fans as well.

I suspect I could talk about this book for several more pages before I ran out of the most important things to say. I won’t though – I have learnt from Grass to stop while you’re ahead. I am going to ask myself a few questions before I end, though. Was it a stupidly long and difficult book to read? Did I enjoy it? Is it a work of genius, deserved of the Nobel Prize, contributing to the literature of the world? The answer to all three of those questions is a resounding yes.

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