If a mid-century German Crime and Punishment exists, it’s this one by Günter Grass. The Tin Drum is a desperate mea culpa on the way to absolution.
The Tin Drum is a lament from one who balked at the storm but couldn’t drum a din loud enough to stop it, and Grass’ novel is bent on understanding this psychology. But to get at those things he’s unwilling to tell us, his readers must care enough to pry into his mind.
The spirit of Grass’ most major work is secreted in his protagonist Oskar’s first readings, a dichotomy of Goethe and Rasputin. It’s a fractured spirit of rational romanticism and lurid mysticism that Hesse, perhaps, would have envied.
The Tin Drum is the first novel in Grass’ Danzig trilogy, a loosely composed series that views the interwar and wartime era through the perspective of what was then the Free City of Danzig, now Gdansk, Poland.
The fabulist doctrine of mid-century literature seeps into Grass’ work, but its deceptions can more accurately be categorized as the window dressing for the conscience of post-war Germany. In Tin Drum, Grass inverts realist logic and forces major events, important details and half-truths to the background while permitting, almost unwillingly it would seem, his words to trail such that minor things overspill the foreground space in surfeit.
The result is a novel that is stylistically complex and its author’s own catharsis. The torment lasts from beginning to end as its hero searches for penance to the crime of happenstance: existing when the world is crumbling.
The only acknowledged guilt in The Tin Drum is the false guilt of circumstantials – easier to own the collateral fallout and pay dues for the deaths you could never have caused than to suffer the guilty conscience of inaction during a time that warped the most basic human decency and clouded the eyes of its participants.
Just what I have been dreading for years, ever since my getaway: that they would find the real murderer, reopen the case, acquit me, discharge me from this mental hospital, take away my lovely bed, put me out in the cold street, in the wind and rain, and oblige a thirty-year-old Oskar to gather disciples round himself and his drum.
There’s the crutch of the mental patient’s mind that allows Oskar to shut out Poland, Germany and eastern Europe circa 1940’s, and there’s the lubricating balm of magical realism that allows his writer, Günter Grass, to continually avoid talking about the main thing.
Grass revealed only in 2006 that he was member to the Waffen SS at the age of 17, a confession verified through documents one year later.
How does a man with this history write of his own complicity or of the actions of his countrymen? How does he view with equanimity his youth, his duty and his ethics? How can he take up the feeling that seduced a nation and examine it in retrospect? Hindsight becomes a large mental barometer that can’t play fair, and it tortures the mind.
His protagonist tries to spell it out, but what happens to Oskar? He lies in a hospital bed with his wits out of reach of his hands, and they’re hands that no longer drum but write the words we read so that we may hear what he once tried to play.
And Grass himself tries to spell it out, but what happens to him? He can’t write plainly and talks instead through allegory and allusion. The Tin Drum is war guilt as literary style.
Kristallnacht as a suffering witches’ night exists in the background though its shattered glass, hinted at through Oskar’s thrown voice that breaks theater windows and druggists’ vials, exists in the foreground as omen.
The defense of the Polish Post Office and those first salvoes of the war create a scene that details more closely than the barrage a child’s toy shelf and the unexpected cowardness of one man – uncle, presumptive father and mother’s lover all in one.
D-Day is a carnie’s one-act play atop the Atlantic Wall’s concrete bunkers and its title is the descriptive Barbaric, Mystical, Bored.
And how does Grass tell us the war is ending? Fleetingly and through the side of his mouth. Herr Fajngold pours out kerosene now, not Lysol, in Treblinka’s alleys and its keepers turn their guns inward. There’s a Red Army cellar march and a Nazi’s party pin that transfigures into sharp lozenge and cuts the windpipe so as to avoid a death more brutal.
The Tin Drum reads like a musical round, like a staggered entrance of the winds and strings and brass and drums, like the infinite canon of some Schoenbergian librettist, crescendoing and layering its phrases until its allegories become allegories of allegories.
Grass’ 3-foot-tall and immortally three-years-old Oskar with his infantile drumming are cover for the things unsaid. They’re a forced retardation that offers through its protective veiling a noetic insight to the world around him.
We dwarfs and fools have no business dancing on concrete made for giants. If only we had stayed under the rostrums where no one suspected our presence!
Grass treats the deaths of his characters absentmindedly and gives to their births hardly more consideration. He is more concerned with the before and after – with the conceptions and the burials – than with any one life’s coming and going. The lone exception is the death of the greengrocer, Herr Greff, who engineers a contrivance for his own hanging. A makeshift gallows, it’s rigged to kill when balanced against his weight in potatoes and it sets drums to drumming overhead upon the noose’s swift cinching.
Greff’s is an engineered death guaranteed by a creation innocent to the eye of its purpose but divulging a devious intention, much like certain camp showers.
The Tin Drum is written in a series of these allegories, and they build the structure of Grass’ novel into one that excretes guilt, anger, confusion and anguish.
And that lopsided attention to conception and burial, while ignoring the moments of birth and death, read like an amnesia of one who wants to understand the beginning and then to mend the future but never linger for long on what happened between.
Oskar’s fixation on his own heritage, on his two presumptive fathers and the tangle with Maria – lover and, later, mistress to his unloved (non-)father Matzerath – is one he comes back to time and again. Grass displays his Oskar as a tired man who wanted one thing, never could take the fatal leap and so is left more bedraggled than before, a young man only 30 by novel’s end, but confined to a hospital and awaiting a trial that in all likelihood would acquit him for his nonexistent crimes and force him to atone for the ones that eat him from the inside out.
All told, Grass’ novel is that carnie Bebra’s circus dramedy atop the Atlantic Wall’s concrete bunkers: barbaric, mystical, bored.
Barbaric. A longshoreman traps eels with a dead horse’s head and pulls the live fish from its ears and mouth. Never explicit where it matters, Grass details scenes so grotesque as to be rebukes of man’s bottomless creativity for the unnaturally savage.
Mystical. Truth is here but fiction makes it a bleary view. The Tin Drum is a string of allegories but whose full verity guilt represses.
Bored. Because since the age of three Oskar has resigned himself to his fate, has placed himself beneath the rostrum and not in front of it, has accepted second place in love, has begrudged the artists their poor renderings of his image and has eaten Klepp’s recycled spaghetti during a quarter-life that did not allow his maturation.
The scenes in The Tin Drum are piecemeal in the most annoying way: stupid little stuck-on details for every admission of memory (admission because the memories, under these details, incriminate). But we know they are only deflections, like the plaster and artistic liberties the post-war artists give when rendering Oskar’s hump-backed form.
In side-stepping the inconsequential we find the cowering human at the center of The Tin Drum, and we see he’s that same one who frequents the Church of the Sacred Heart and finds the baby Jesus with drum sticks in His hands and it’s here that the novel beats its music with conviction.
The Tin Drum exhumes a nation that has never enjoyed the luxury of firm borders and that has instead for centuries been the ragdoll toy wrenched east and west, north and south, and spilling its cotton tufts to the winds. Grass’ writing is insistent, and he gives to Danzig’s stifled history, aged little further than Oskar’s own, a drum to beat and the chance to breathe on its own.
The Tin Drum · Günter Grass · 1959
Ralph Manheim translation · MJF Books/Fine Communications, 1987 · 465 pages, hardcover
The Tin Drum is the first book in Grass’ Danzig trilogy:
The Tin Drum
Cat and Mouse