Günter Grass — The Tin Drum

This isn’t going to be a particularly long review, mostly because I don’t feel as though I’m really qualified to speak much about The Tin Drum, written by Nobel-prize winning Günter Grass. It is easy to see WHY he is a Nobel prize winner, but I’ll get into that in a bit.

First of all, the story. Narrated by Oskar, who from the moment of his birth was a totally conscious and fiendishly smart “adult,” decided that instead of growing up, he would simply stop growing at the age of three. Trapped in a small body and possessed of the titular tin drum, Oskar drums his views on the world, throwing tantrums and shattering glass with his voice when anyone attempts to separate him from his instrument of choice. Growing up in Danzig on the eve of the Second World War, Oskar’s first “presumptive father” is his mother’s husband, the Nazi Matzerath, and the second is man he truly feels is his father, the Pole Jan Bronski. Throughout the war, Oskar’s life plays out in as chaotic a manner as the fighting around him. He ends up in a mental institution, though you won’t find out why until much later in the book.

I’m going to say right out that this book took me ages to read, and I can normally read a book in an hour or two. This took three or four days at least of dedicated reading. Normally when I read, I can look at a page and absorb the words (this is the best way to describe it, it’s hard to put it in proper phrasing). Grass’ writing, or Breon Mitchell’s translation, I’m not sure which, forced me to read word-by-word, which was a frustratingly new experience. And a very slow one. It was partially because I did not want to miss anything and partially because Grass writing is so dense and fiendishly clever and lyrical that I HAD to slow down or I found my eyes just jumping from word to word without understanding what they said at all.

I wrote in a previous post that I had previously owned and read a translation by Manheim. While that edition preserved a good literal translation of the work, reading Mitchell’s The Tin Drum was an entirely new experience and, judging by the fact that he worked closely with Grass to produce it, is closer not to the literal translation of the words but to Grass’ voice, his intention. And it did read very differently, much more poetic and musical, and much more humorous and profane. I can understand why Manheim left certain things out for an American audience in 1959–there were a few passages where I both laughed and cringed (post-coital fluids described as snot dropping to the floor, for example). Oskar’s voice (or Grass’ voice) is totally unique to anything I have read in literature, though the closest I can come to comparison is Joyce.

This is not light reading, but it is a fiendishly funny, bizarre, and strangely modern story. It was a challenge, but one that I am glad to have stuck out.

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2 Comments

Filed under Books, Review

2 responses to “Günter Grass — The Tin Drum

  1. Pritam

    I am really glad I came across this post, as I have been finding it inordinarily difficult to engross my self into this novel.
    I thought the surprisingly long time it is taking for me to read the book is due to my inexperience of literature (this factor may still be at play). However to hear that a devout and learned reader as yourself took a while to decipher this novel comforts me, in that with a bit of patience, the unfathomable will become fathomable. At last I should be able to enjoy the tortous complexities of this novel without any inhibitions! Thanks.

    • Well, don’t give up! I’m fairly sure I haven’t gotten anywhere near what there is to get out of it yet, but rest assured that if the reading is slow, it’s not just you. 🙂 You’re welcome, I hope you’ll be able to finish it yourself.

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