Michael Dirda Reflects on Gunter Grass's 'The Tin Drum'

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, October 8, 2009


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 grandstands."

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 30th birthday.

"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 Morrison's "Beloved."

Michael Dirda -- mdirda@gmail.com-- appears in Style each Thursday.

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