Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Tin Drum
by Gunter Grass

I rather enjoyed this one.  The writing (and I suppose the translation work) was very engaging and was more or less broken up into chronological episodes.  The characters were many, yet memorable, starting with the narrator and main character, Oskar, who purports to have purposefully stopped himself from growing anymore at the age of three, has a talent for drumming and has the ability to scream and accurately break any glass in his eye-sight at his choosing.

If Oskar's character sounds a bit unorthodox, that's just the beginning, there's a rather surrealistic/humorous/dark skew to all of the stories and characters.  But not so much in the cartoony, overly done way that I think is so common to a lot of modern tv shows now.  It's just well much more subtle than that.

There's a musicality to the writing in a lot of places and I suspect that it must have been even more so in the original German version.  In the forward, they mention that Grass originally was planning for this to be a tone poem and I think a lot of that still comes through:
In blowing, my grandmother closed her eyes. When she thought she had blown enough, she opened first one eye, then the other, bit into the potato with her widely spaced but otherwise perfect front teeth, removed half the potato, cradled the other half, mealy steaming, and still too hot to chew, in her open mouth, and, sniffing at the smoke and the October air, gazed wide-eyed across the field towards the nearby horizon, sectioned by telegraph poles and the upper third of the brickworks chimney.
Intriguingly, there are frequent change-ups in writing styles throughout.  For example, there are occasional shifts in the narrator, such as shifting from Oskar's perspective to that of Oksar's mental hospital nurse.  There are also varied usages of rhythm and tone.   The chapter, "Faith, Hope, Love," in particular sticks out for its use of repetition to underscore the emotions of the burial of Oskar's friend Herbert, who was killed in a supernatural fashion by a beautiful but evil wooden female ship's figurehead.

I think also that Oskar the narrator can also be an untrustworthy one.  He claims his genius, yet throughout the stories, he's in a mental hospital, because he convinced a friend to turn him in for the murder of a nurse whom he had a crush on, but the act of which he did not commit.   His actions also are sometimes inane.  For example, for some time he lived across the hall from the nurse mentioned above.  One night, he woke up in the middle of the night and instead of properly dressing himself, grabbed a piece of rough carpet to surround himself with.  He managed to startle the nurse while she is in the communal bathroom, and instead of apologizing and clarifying himself, he instead convinces her in her fright that he is Satan and proceeds to sexually pleasure her with the rough carpet.

It's just a very striking novel in many respects.

Of course, one must mention that it is set in a city on the German-Polish border during the Nazi era. I mention this last, since these references were the ones that I had the least understanding of and I'm guessing having a basic grasp of the political and historical events of these times would have helped clarify why this book was such a bomb-shell of a book for Germans when it was published.

In any case, even without understanding the historical context of the story, it's still a strikingly interesting book to read.  I just wish I could more fully understand the history to get the full impact of it.