Andreas Mertin reviews The Tin Drum by Günter Grass.
The resident of a mental institution, Oskar Matzerath is unique. He is one of the “clairaudient infants”, those whose “spiritual development is complete at birth and only needs to affirm itself”. That is, he remembers with considerable detail his birth, and at the age of three decides that he does not want to be a politician or a grocer and so from that day forward he will no longer grow. Also on his third birthday, Oskar receives his first tin drum, one of many he will get throughout his life. In addition to his refusal to grow up as the world expects, Oskar also has a glass shattering scream which he can control with incredible effectiveness. Living through the tail end of the Depression and witnessing the oncoming horror and aftermath of the Second World War in Danzig, Oskar knows too well the horrors of the grown-up world. Now in the confines a mental hospital, Oskar decides to write down his story.
The tale is brought to us thanks to the eponymous tin drum in Oskar’s possession. From its white and red enamelled surface he conjures his memories that flow in epic proportions, with the story covering many aspect of Oskar’s family history that coincide with era defining events. Born during the years of the Free City of Danzig, Oskar regales his experience during the defence of the Polish Post Office in Danzig as part of the German invasion of Poland, we see one of his lovers killed during the invasion of Normandy, and we witness Oskar among those Germans expelled from Eastern Europe and the now Polish city of Danzig. These historic moments are contrasted with his fantastical escapades, with his voice shattering the glass of shop fronts to tempt passersby, or his claims to not have physically advanced beyond the age of three. The latter instils in it a warped parody of the child narrator, like Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn or Lee’s Scout Finch. Where those tales instil the child narrator with hard fought adult wisdom to sooth the harshness of life, Oskar is a narrator who has complete “spiritual development” from birth and refuses to accept adult ideas and condolences, choosing instead to surround himself with a never ending childhood constantly assaulted by the grown-up world where their consolations ring hollow.
In the end, although covering decisive historical events, the text is presented as the record of a mental patient who evokes these fantastical memories by rhapsodising on his small tin drum while sitting on his bed in the mental ward, and we are left questioning the veracity of Oskar’s story. Added to this is his shift from first to third person, often within a single passage or sentence, leading to even greater questions of whether this is a vital history or a voracious boast of a demented mind. All the way through is this nagging thought of whether his insistence to not grow up in a mad world affirms him, or whether he is the perfect candidate for the madhouse in which he finds himself?