There are certain books you come to with a baggage that has been handed to you by the media, word of mouth and your own expectations. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass falls into that category because you start reading it with the knowledge that he is one of Germany’s most famous writers, is embroiled in controversy over his Nazi past and won a Nobel prize. There is even a film version of this book, which I have not seen, which for those that have will also add to the noise before you even turn a page.
There is also a slight intimidation in the length, not far off 600 pages, that puts it into the middle category of not a major undertaking like War & Peace but equally not a slim volume that can be consumed quickly.
A boy named Oskar is telling his life story from the comfort of a mental hospital explaining that from the age of three he decided not to grow up and so remained for many years three foot high. The other event on his third birthday is the drum he is given as a present. He drums his way through most of the next twenty seven years but the landscape around him changes. On the family front his mother, who has two lovers, dies and one of his presumptive fathers dies after defending the Polish Post Office in Danzig. In terms of his education Oskar is unable to fit into a school environment and mainly communicates through his drum and uses his high pitched scream that shatters glass. His life changes after he meets another midget Bebra who advises him how to behave and then after the war starts drafts him into the propaganda company cheering the troops. Meanwhile Oskar has used his third drumstick to get the family shop girl Maria pregnant but she marries his remaining presumptive father and the son Kurt is never acknowledged as being his. Following the end of the war and the Soviet takeover of Danzig Oskar and family head for Düsseldorf where Oskar starts a jazz band that makes him rich and falls in love with a nurse living in an apartment opposite his own. The nurse turns up dead and Oskar takes the blame – hence the mental hospital – but on his thirtieth birthday the news comes through that the real killer has confessed and he might be acquitted and sent out into an uncertain future.
That’s the gist of it but there are numerous episodes that have been missed but the key point is that there is a development of Oskar that is unique and although delayed takes him into some strange places and links him with some very unusual characters.
Is it well written?
The start is a challenge and it takes a fairly long time before any sort of interest grows in Oskar who is not only a deliberate freak but very annoying at times. Where you start to appreciate Grass is when it starts to dawn that in a way Oskar is a metaphor for the stunted ambitions firstly for the Poles to have an independent nation and then later for there to be a sane voice against the violence and bitterness of the post-war Germany. The character of Oksar becomes more likeable when he starts to speak and by the end the drumming and the height are not the issue it is the idea that he is frightened of the world, despite everything he has done, that is the image that you remember. There is a large amount going on here that at first is not only obvious but is also not engaging. It is only when the history starts to dictate events that the book gains a momentum independent of the main characters. Because of the length of the book Grass is also able to deploy various techniques and involved the reader sometimes in a historical battle scene, a rags to riches success story or even a thriller.
Should it be read?
This deserves to be read because it not only contains a very good story but it is a challenging book that almost deliberately throws in the face of the reader a collection of ugly, freakish characters that it is almost impossible to like. The struggle he makes you go through is worth it because the ending is something that is very thought provoking. It is also a good idea to read works of literature from other cultures because it not only provides a different geographical perspective on the world but also throws up a different writing style. I would recommend this book to anyone that was prepared to work at it and stick with it until the end but for a casual holiday read it would not make it into hand luggage. That is a shame because it does deserve to be read but it is a reality.
Oskar the midget grows up in a world that is tainted by the evil and actions of others and realises at the end that hiding behind a childhood façade is not a long term solution