Book Reviews, The Noble Nobel Project
Comments 6

6 Months, 3 Books, 1 Drum – The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

The Tin Drum is the first book in the Danzig Trilogy. It tells us the story of Oskar Matzerath with reminiscences from his birth up to his 30th birthday. A person who hast the power to break glass using his voice, Oskar willfully stopped his body from growing at the age of three, which is also the same year that he received his first tin drum from his mother. He spends his pre and post WWII years in the body of a child until he gets locked up in a mental institution. So how did he end up there and tell his story to us?


I was more than excited to read The Tin Drum when I first got it. In fact, I went out of my way to get a copy of Breon Mitchell’s translation for the novel’s 50th anniversary. The Ralph Manheim version, I gave it away. I imagined this book to be fun because the protagonist is a very interesting character. My expectations were not in vain; the first chapter delivered. However, something happened.

My reading just fell apart. I read it at a sluggish pace, finishing the three books that the novel has in six months. True, I went through a phase filled with unexplained lassitude during the last quarter of 2012, and it’s most probable that this has affected my appreciation of this novel. I feel pretty bad about this because I know that this is an important work in German literature. Perhaps I could be allowed to explain myself.

There, I have it now, my drum. There it hangs, brand-new, zigzagged white and red, on my tummy. There I am, self-assured, my face solemn and resolute, my drumsticks crossed upon the tin. There I am in my striped sweater. There I stand in gleaming patent-leather shoes. There my hair stands, like a brush ready for action atop my head, there, mirrored in each blue eye, a will to power that needs no followers. There I am back then, in a stance I found no reason to abandon. There and then I decided, there I declared, there I decreed, that I would never be a politician and most certainly not a grocer, that I would make a point instead of remaining as I was–and so I did, remained that size, kept that attire, for years to come.

The text is dense and immensely stylistic. Style is a fundamental part of writing, and so is content. I felt that I was fed with too many intricate sentences at every page. When I reached the second book, I’ve had enough of the multiple series and parallelisms that I decided to read other books along it just so I could get rid of the singshattering distaste that filled my mouth. And this is what I always thought when I finished each chapter: what an arrogant, arrogant book this is.

[And I recognized her at once. Rage, shame, indignation, disappointment, and a half-comic, half-painful incipient stiffening of the little watering can under my bathing suit made me forget both drum and drumsticks in favor a of a newly grown stick.]

You also have no clear idea where the novel is headed. It’s given: Oskar is a notoriously unreliable narrator. He is a very quirky and lively storyteller, and he has this habit of switching between the first and the third persons. He is inclined to digress and backtrack a lot, which I found really helpful because I was able to recall details in the novel that I have already forgotten. His reveries reflect how stubborn, selfish, sly, and sad he is. Yes, his personality is a mix of contrasts that it’s not surprising for readers to develop a love-hate relationship with him.

As Oskar tells us his own and his family’s story at the start and end of the second world war, we realize that we are not only reading about the Matzerath history. We are not only being privy to his and his parents’ secret love affairs, to their tragic experiences at the onset of the war, and to Oskar’s coming of age, but we also see the horrendous effects that the war inflicted on ordinary people.

[Today Oskar faces the difficult task of reproducing on his drum an echo of that avalanche of potatoes–a windfall, by the way, for a few of the medics–and the organized din of Greff’s drum machine. No doubt because my drum had a decisive influence on the shape and design of Greff’s death, I sometimes manage to translate Greff’s death into a well-rounded composition for percussion on Oskar’s drum, and when friends or my keeper Bruno ask me what I call it, I tell them: Seventy-five Kilos.]

Oskar uses his drum not only to drum up the past but also to drum away the uprising Nazi party. In one chapter, he drums along the marching party not to support them but to disrupt their rally. His mystical voice is a different story. As an adolescent, he used it to vandalize religious objects and to help his gang steal items from different shops. He does so by cracking the storefront windows with his powerful voice. So yes, his musical gifts have an ambivalent nature.

But as he grows older, he loses his power to screamshatter. His three-foot body even undergoes a spurt of growth as he realizes that the times will keep on changing with him getting left behind. He has to adapt to the changes if he wants to survive. His body must learn and grow with the experiences that life is giving us.

A very complex novel, this deserves some serious consideration. The book captures a war-torn era that the world would rather forget, and presents to us themes on music and art as vehicles for peace, the inevitability of adulthood, and the complexity of people’s interaction in the society. Indeed, it’s a book of percussive quality, but the drum has never been on the list of instruments I wish I could play.


Dates Read: August 26, 2012 to February 8, 2013

No. of Pages: 582

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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6 Comments

  1. Hi, Angus!

    It seems that your feelings on this novel are conflicted. So, did you like this novel?

    I read The Tin Drum years ago. I can’t even remember when. I don’t even recall what translation I read. (Basta the cover was this: http://images.amazon.com/images/P/067972575X.01.LZZZZZZZ.jpg) I did remember liking it though. I read it as soon as I finished Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, as The Tin Drum has always been compared to it.

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    • Really? Hahaha. Hmm. Based on the description of Goodreads for 2-stars, I find it just okay. I couldn’t really give it 3-stars because if I really like a novel, it wouldn’t take me so long to finish it.

      That edition’s translator is Ralph Manheim, who is known for chopping the long sentences of Grass in the original text. He even omitted a couple of “pornographic” sentences.

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  2. Finally you got to finish this humungous book! Hm, I wonder when I can muster enough challenge to read the copy you gave me. :D Your review made me interested but not too much. Haha!

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  3. Monique says

    So it would be safe to categorize this novel as historical fiction? I have a thing for that genre. :)

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    • Yep, since it happened before and after the WW2 with particular focus on the Nazi occupation at Poland. You go and try it out, who knows you could finish it faster than I did. :D

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