Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum

True Lies:

Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

Of the great postwar novels of the twentieth century, few have had as much international impact as Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum. Published in 1959, The Tin Drum has had a palpable influence on the works of Thomas Pynchon, and the novel’s style, structure, and circle of themes—the narrator and main character, Oskar Matzerath, functioning as a kind of cipher for Germany itself—has served as a virtual template for such works as Edgar Hilsenrath’s brilliant The Nazi and the Barber and Salman Rushdie’s even more derivative (but still brilliant) Midnight’s Children.

The novel begins when the adult Oskar, confined to a mental hospital in the 1950s after allowing himself to be falsely convicted for murder and (perhaps rightfully) deemed insane, starts to write his memoirs. Although metaphorical and allegorical on many levels, The Tin Drum is never so simplistic as to make any one-to-one correlation between Oskar and Germany’s issues of guilt and innocence, but near the beginning of his account of his life, Oskar does make himself into a kind of symbol as he describes his current life in the asylum:

Once a week a visiting day breaks in on the stillness that I plait between the white metal bars. This is the time for the people who want to save me, whom it amuses to love me, who try to esteem and respect themselves, to get to know themselves, through me.

Subsequently, through Oskar’s cracked asylum memoir (as through those other great asylum-memoir novels of the time, The Catcher in the Rye and Lolita), we get to know some of the most painful and horrifying aspects of our own selves. We also “try to esteem and respect” ourselves by attempting to make sure that we’re completely free of the insidious complicity that Nazism spread through Germany, Europe, and in fact all of humanity. If only human beings are capable of inhumanity—if we’re the only species capable of orchestrating (or even conceiving) the Holocaust—then who among us can claim to be incapable of the most unspeakable atrocities? How do we live with knowledge of the War and still “esteem and respect” ourselves as human beings?

One of the most fascinating aspects of The Tin Drum is that it both frames and wholly evades almost all the issues raised by the War in general and by the Nazis in particular. Rather than being an active participant in the events of his time, Oskar exists on the margins, watching parades from beneath the hollows of the bleacher-facades and refusing to step up himself (either to join or to oppose). Through his eyes, we see the empty artifices created by the Nazis to dazzle the populace, and alongside him we get to descend into the vast underworld that either exists beyond the Nazis’ grasp or that crops up in their devastating wake.

From the 1979 film version of The Tin Drum
Oskar’s unusual vantage point (and ability to evade notice) is the result of his thorough singularity: He’s born with an adult ability to think and remember—his description of his birth is especially astonishing—and at age three, when he realizes that he’ll one day have to join banal adulthood, he decides never to grow up and stunts his growth by jumping down a flight of stairs and landing on his head. Somehow this works to arrest his growth, and he gets to remain a child, banging the tin drum that he receives as a gift for his third birthday, often to the confusion of the Nazis, and using his nearly inhuman shriek to shatter glass, which can be read as a twist on the Nazis’ Kristallnacht.

Although his decision to remain a child allows him to avoid and confound many of the evils of the adult world around him, Oskar doesn’t realize that remaining a child keeps him from growing in many necessary ways that his ostensibly adult mind can’t fathom—an avoidance that can itself be a kind of evil. Oskar’s stunted growth and unexpanding worldview is in many ways a mirror of Nazi Germany itself, with its own drums and shrieks and avoidance of personal accountability. In classic German literature, the Bildungsroman—the novel of growth—charts a character’s development through the necessary stages of life, and as a metaphor for the German nation’s decision to remain at an impeded and false adulthood, The Tin Drum works as a kind of anti-Bildungsroman. Of course, Oskar and his world are much more complicated than this simple summation, and as his wild and convoluted exploits expand ever outward through this labyrinthine novel, he does grow in some remarkable ways, giving the reader a prismatic view of life and of world events that’s not simply restricted to the vantage point of childish eyes.

For many years, readers have assumed—and have been meant to assume—that Oskar’s refusal to join adulthood also worked as a metaphor for the Nobel Prize-winning author’s own outsider’s view of World War Two. Through his literature and his activism, Grass has always maintained himself as a staunch critic of any kind of Nazi complicity, but then in 2006, he revealed to a startled world that he’d been a soldier in the Waffen-SS in 1944, when he was seventeen. Like so many Germans (and non-Germans), he’d been unable to avoid participating in the evils of his country and of his race (the human race), and perhaps even The Tin Drum itself was just an elaborate facade constructed so that Grass could “try to esteem and respect” himself after what he’d been part of.

Being drafted into the German Army is certainly no crime, but withholding the truth for so many decades has left many admirers of Grass’ work and life feeling betrayed by a serious sin of omission. Still, whether it helped to fashion a false truth about the author or not, in writing this life-changing novel Grass has allowed a world of readers (as well as himself) “to get to know themselves” through Oskar. Oskar’s remarks about his visitors may be disdainful and damning, but whether we’re willing participants in evil, or passive participants in it, or even victims of it, we still have the opportunity to examine ourselves and our world in Grass’ great masterpiece. As in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which takes some of Grass’ techniques and themes to even more extreme lengths, perhaps there’s no way to avoid some form of complicity. Rather than causing us to damn others (or ourselves), though, these works of art offer worlds of endless complexity that allow for true reflection, which is perhaps the best way to get to know who we really are.

—David Wiley

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