By Michael Dirda
Washington Post, Thursday, October 8, 2009
THE TIN DRUM
By Günter Grass
Translated from the German by Breon Mitchell
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 582 pp. $26
This year marks the 50th anniversary of "The Tin Drum," the first and
best-known novel of Nobel Prize-winning author Günter Grass. While its
narrator, the 3-foot-tall Oskar Matzerath, may be small in stature,
his story is epic in scale -- nothing less than the history of Germany
during the first half of the 20th century, told through the
experiences of one family. The first two-thirds of the book portrays
life in the Free City of Danzig -- now Gdansk, Poland -- where Grass
himself grew up; the last third, which covers postwar Germany through
the early 1950s, take place largely in Dusseldorf, where the future
author studied sculpture and graphics.
"The Tin Drum" has been regarded as a modern classic almost since the
moment it was published. In English its success was helped along by an
excellent translation by the late Ralph Manheim, to whom the young
Grass was rightly grateful, despite a few reservations. In recent
years, however, Grass has grown increasingly involved in the foreign
versions of his work, going so far as to organize Übersetzertreffen --
short convocations of his translators -- at which he fields questions
about his various books. From his experience of these meetings, Grass
persuaded his publishers to commission a new English version of "The
Tin Drum" from the distinguished Germanist Breon Mitchell.
In his afterword Mitchell explains that great books demand new
versions because translations, no matter how fine, eventually grow
dated. "The works that are never retranslated are those we only care
to read once." In this instance, he underscores his deep admiration
for Manheim, who was something of a mentor, while making clear that
this new version has benefited from the inestimable help of the author
and that it aims to reflect as closely as possible the rhythms and
intricacy of Grass's German. "Each sentence in the new 'Tin Drum,' "
notes Mitchell, "now faithfully replicates the length of the sentence
in Grass's original text, and no sentences are broken up or
deliberately shortened." As Mitchell concludes, "The new version I
offer is meant for our present age, one that is increasingly open to
the foreignness of the text, to the provocative innovation of
linguistic play, to a syntactic complexity that stretches language."
This may sound as if the novel has been made dauntingly inaccessible,
which isn't at all the case. With a magic-realist brio, "The Tin Drum"
mixes fantasy, gallows humor, several pathetic love stories, a tragic
family saga, a classic bildungsroman and a powerful account of how
great political events affect -- usually disastrously -- a small group
of ordinary people. It grabs your attention from the very first words:
"Granted: I'm an inmate in a mental institution. . . ."
That voice belongs to the lonely, dwarfish Oskar Matzerath, who
proceeds to tell us the story of his life, starting with the day his
grandmother hid a fleeing arsonist under her voluminous skirts, then
later married him. Their daughter, Agnes, subsequently weds the
storekeeper Alfred Matzerath, whose serious passions are cooking and
the Nazi Party. A complaisant husband as well, he turns a blind eye to
his wife's ongoing love affair with a pale and sensitive Pole, Jan
Bronski. The Matzerath circle also includes the greengrocer Herr
Greff, who prefers Boy Scouts to his slatternly but voluptuous wife;
the Jewish toy-shop owner Sigismund Markus, who is in love with Agnes;
and the Truczinksi family, whose museum-guard son Herbert finds
himself fatefully drawn to an accursed statue of Niobe -- this chapter
could stand as a first-rate supernatural tale -- and whose daughter
Maria becomes Oskar's great love.
Because of his mother's adultery, little Oskar remains uncertain of
his true paternity. But he claims that at the age of 3, he made a
conscious decision to stop growing, so that he would never have "to
rattle a cash register" and could spend all his time drumming. Thus,
throughout the first two thirds of the novel, Oskar remains largely
mute and seemingly infantile, both spoiled and pitied, obsessed with
playing his little drum and prey to the cruelty of other children. Yet
he's as much an evil gnome as he is a lonely, apparently autistic
child: His screams can shatter glass, and frequently do; he mutilates
a statue of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus; his selfishness even
causes, albeit indirectly, a whole series of deaths.
As Oskar recalls his childhood and adolescence, Grass mentions major
political events as distant, almost minor matters in the family's
ongoing dramas: "In January of forty-three there was a good deal of
talk about the city of Stalingrad." While little Oskar rejects formal
schooling, he nonetheless teaches himself to read, choosing as his
personal role models Rasputin with "his world of naked women in black
stockings" and "the know-it-all" Goethe, in other words, "the dark and
gloomy figure who cast a spell on women and the luminous poet-prince
who so happily allowed women to cast a spell on him." Oskar himself
periodically uses the power of his drumming or his laser-like,
glass-cutting voice to mock the pieties of those around him. For a
while, he takes to waiting in the shadows until an upright citizen
pauses at a jewelry store, where -- amazingly -- a round hole suddenly
appears in the window, just big enough for a gloved hand to reach
through and unobtrusively seize a ruby necklace. At another point,
Oskar convinces a gang of teenage hooligans that he is, in fact,
Jesus, and that they must obey his commands.
In perhaps the most famous scene in the novel, the Matzeraths and
Bronski take a walk along the seashore, where they see a hideous old
man, fishing with a long rope. They pause for a moment, as he hauls up
the line to reveal that it is attached to a horse's severed head. He
dumps the pulpy, disgusting mass on the dock and begins to pull out
long black eels, which he tosses into a canvas bag of salt. Oskar
writes that his mother at first wishes to look away, then finds that
she cannot turn away, and finally that she vomits up her breakfast,
which is soon devoured by swooping seagulls. To cap things off, the
hearty Herr Matzerath buys several of the eels to take home for
supper. The repercussions from this incident change everyone's life.
In the 1930s Oskar meets another midget named Bebra, and this
cosmopolitan traveler (and circus clown) ominously warns his youthful
admirer: "They're coming! They will take over the festival grounds.
They will stage torchlight parades. They will build grandstands, they
will fill grandstands, they will preach our destruction from
grandstands. Watch closely, my young friend, what happens on those
As Oskar notes in the bitterly satirical chapter "Faith Hope Love,"
"An entire gullible nation believed faithfully in Santa Claus. But
Santa Claus was really the Gasman." The war years themselves are
replete with nightmarish and absurdist scenes: While the Germans lay
siege to the Danzig Post Office, a coward, driven mad by fear, compels
Oskar and a dying man to play game after game of cards. The afternoon
before D-Day, a group of dwarves chats with a German gunner in his
pillbox on the beach at Normandy, while five nuns with black umbrellas
frolic at the water's edge and a gramophone plays "Sleigh Bells in St.
Petersburg." In the postwar era, a desperate Oskar first becomes an
assistant to a funerary stonecutter, then an artist's model and
eventually a jazz percussionist at the Onion Cellar, where people pay
vast sums of money so they can peel onions -- and openly weep. In due
course, Oskar's drumming -- it possesses an Orpheus-like power to
affect people's souls -- brings him a great fortune, but it also leads
to his incarceration in an asylum, where he gloomily celebrates his
"The Tin Drum" has now been studied and interpreted in classrooms for
half a century. Grass himself has emerged during that time not only as
a major novelist but also as a cultural and political gadfly.
Recently, he disclosed that at the age of 17 he was briefly a tank
gunner for the Waffen-SS, an admission that adds a probably unwanted
resonance to Oskar's occasional observations about wartime guilt,
e.g., "I tend, like everyone else, to make allowances for my
ignorance, an ignorance that was just then coming into fashion and,
like a jaunty hat, still looks oh so good on many a person today."
Still, however one feels about Grass's 60-year silence, "The Tin Drum"
itself remains a very great novel, as daring and imaginative as
Gabriel García Márquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" or Toni
Michael Dirda -- email@example.com-- appears in Style each Thursday.