This is one of the most celebrated works of Post-War German Literature. Gunter Grass (1927-2015) went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1999 and this is really the novel which is at the centre of his impressive reputation. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this work new translations were commissioned with Grass working very closely with ten translators taking them on location visits to get the flavour of the novel. This English translation by Breon Mitchell is the result and this has very much superseded the translation by Ralph Manheim which served for the book’s first 50 years and which I read as a teenager.
At least I think I did, re-reading it after all these years I’m not totally convinced I ever finished it. Nowadays, I read everything through to its conclusion but I’ve a feeling that the library edition I borrowed back then might have been needed for another reader or that school work got in the way because what seemed very familiar at first, in fact, almost etched into my psyche, got increasingly less familiar as I progressed through this dense, challenging novel. I certainly saw the 1979 film version around the same time and once again images from the film feel exceedingly strong although if pushed I would have no idea how much of the book made it into the film.
Still from the film
I’d hazard a guess at not much. Grass’ novel is so richly detailed and full of incidents that it would have been overpowering in one cinematic sitting. Originally titled “Die Blechtrommel” this may very well be an allegory for Europe before and after the rise of the Nazis beginning in the beleaguered Free City of Danzig, then under the authority of the League Of Nations shifting to West Germany in the post-war years but for most readers it will be the tale of the boy with the drum.
At the age of three Oskar is given a toy drum by his parents and decides to stop growing. A fall down cellar steps is engineered to explain this. He drums his way through his extended childhood and early adult years as an eternal three year old, who has the power to shatter glass with his high-pitched screams. He drums his way through the growth of the Nazi regime playing under grandstands to disrupt rallies and manipulates situations through his drumming, some so disturbing that by his late twenties he is in a mental institution from where this story of his life is being recorded.
I cannot remember a book so dense in detail (perhaps Paul Auster’s 4-3-2-1 comes close but that has a distinctly different structure) which certainly must have been a challenge for the translator who as well as the details has to get the rhythmic feel of the endless banging of the drum. It is a progression of extraordinary tales, told by an unreliable narrator, rich in characters and events, ranging from amusing to extremely disturbing, even spiteful. I did lose my way a little in the post-war years when Oskar decides to grow a little and becomes a percussionist in a jazz trio where his ability to get listeners at The Onion Club (so named because patrons get an onion to peel which enables them to cry- this to me feels like a novel in itself) to revert back to their childhood through his drumming leads to recording and touring fame. Throughout he does remain the three year old who wishes to hide under his grandmother’s skirts and focus on his obsessions which includes nurses, Rasputin and Goethe alongside the beating to smithereens many tin drums. Still with me?
This is an extraordinary novel which at times I loved and at other times felt frustrated or just plain baffled by but it is incredibly powerful and would benefit from countless re-readings. Having left it close to 40 years since I last encountered the book or the film it might be too late for countless re-readings but I think elements of it will continue to haunt me forever.
I read the Vintage paperback 2009 translation by Breon Mitchell.