Amazon Customer Review 1
- ’Granted: I am an inmate in a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there's a peephole in the door, and the keeper's eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me'. So starts Gunter Grass' The Tin Drum. Ostensibly, this remarkable book is an account of the invasion of Poland and France by Nazi Germany, but the vehicle that Grass chooses to use in his exposition is quite bizarre and mystifying. Oskar Matzerath, recounts the story to his keeper in a mental hospital. This might well be seen a rather tame or naïve technique to use as a writing tool. But, when one is told of Oskar's dispositions the story becomes fantastical and bizarre.
- Oskar, at the age of three, knowingly throws himself down a flight of stairs to outrage his mother, ‘my poor mama', and his father, ‘my presumptive father' - and promptly stops growing. He is an all-knowing, vindictive dwarf who plays a tin drum incessantly and obsessively. If the drum is withdrawn from him he screams - not an ordinary scream, but a scream which shatters glass far beyond any mortal’s ability.
- The story is set in what was later to become Gdansk and at the time was the Free State of Danzig on the Baltic coast of Poland. As the Nazis advanced into Poland the Free State was defended more fiercely than the mainland and Oskar found himself entrapped in the siege of the Post Office, with his mother's lover - a coward who Oskar cruelly manipulates for his own ends. Oskar appears to have no fear of the peril he is in; it is as if he were invulnerable and external to the raid.
- His compulsive drumming can summon the past with total recall. Any event he can recall, even his birth and the three one-hundred watt bulbs that shone as he entered the world. He can recount graphically and amusingly the conception of his mother. His power of drumming acts as a conduit for penetrating the past.
- Oskar, hides behind a mask of babyhood, but has enormous insight into the psyche of people - he is fearless and calculating. This dwarf becomes involved with a local gang of youths and has little trouble in simply becoming their leader and continuing their bad work more effectively. He is the antithesis of good, yet one sees in him a desire in a greater purpose – one which transcends everyday preoccupations. He is striving towards a higher plane which, in a sense, he achieves always drumming, drumming, drumming. He induces in other people this ability to see into their past, and in so doing becomes an idol.
- This is fantasy. Or is it?
- One would expect the fantastical to amplify the reality - but it doesn't. The grotesque reality of invasion is told with Kafkan understatement and it is this which amplifies the reality.
- Is Oskar mad or is he feigning madness? Is the story an Orwellian double-think? Or, perhaps like Hamlet, he feigns madness so much that it is difficult to tell reality from insanity.
- This is a complex interwoven tale, in which Oskar is quite unbelievable, yet, like Hamlet, could it be that in feigning madness Oskar has become mad? That is, the reality was so grotesque that he feigned madness to protect himself, and in so doing, becomes mad.
Amazon Customer Review 2
- I wanted to read the book before I saw the film. I came to the book blind, knowing it had a reputation, but unaware of its content or style. For those equally ignorant of the book, the story concerns the life of Oskar, born between the wars in a world where Pole rubs side-by-side with German, and whose physical constitution means that he remains the size of a child. And as a child, he also commences a lifelong predilection for playing a tin drum.
- We follow his life, his actions, thoughts, and feelings through the 1930s, through the Second World War, and into the start of the West German economic miracle. Family, neighbours, friends, and enemies and his interactions with them fill the pages. That brief description of the gist of the novel might make it sound as if it is a story of depressing times. It is not. Yes, there is tragedy, but the work is also suffused with a wry humour as Oskar comes to terms with men’s (and women’s) real intentions, as well as cultivating his own.
- Grass soon establishes his approach by narrating the thoughts and actions of his character in the first-person singular, and the third person – and even the second person. And all often in the same sentence. Here’s an example that also gives a feel of the subject-matter: “… it would never occur to me to set myself up as a resistance fighter because I disrupted six or seven rallies and threw three or four parades out of step with my drumming … Did Oskar drum for the people? Did he … take the action in hand and provoke the people out in front of the rostrum to dance? Did he confound and perplex? Did he … break up brown rallies on a drum which though red and white was not Polish? Yes, I did all that. But does that make me, as I lie in this mental hospital, a Resistance Fighter? I must answer in the negative, and I hope that you too, you who are not inmates of mental hospitals, will regard me as nothing more than an eccentric who, for private and what is more esoteric reasons, … rejected the cut and colour of the uniforms, the rhythm and tone of the music normally played on rostrums, and therefore drummed up a bit of protest on the instrument that was a mere toy.”
- Like all good novels, Grass’s work acts on many levels. Putting aside the symbolism, he mixes into the text considerations of philosophy and history: Rasputin as Dionysius and Goethe as Apollo. And there is also much to marvel at on the literary level. For instance, a bullet fired is a “lead projectile” on a “death-dealing change of habitat”.
- That Oskar – and Grass – plays with his readers is also a boon. At one point we have eleven of the 565 pages in the form of a theatre script. And what are we to make of these words of Oskar? “I have just reread the last paragraph. I am not too well satisfied, but Oskar’s pen ought to be, for writing tersely and succinctly, it has managed, as terse, succinct accounts so often do, to exaggerate and mislead, if not to lie.” And yet ‘Oskar’ writes in a convincing and direct no-nonsense role. Yet whilst the reader is compelled to give Oskar the benefit of the doubt, it is clear that the history is troubled by odd inconsistencies and just downright plain lies.
- I enjoyed Oskar’s company (most of the time), and felt I understood his outlook on life (most of the time). It’s not the easiest novel to read, but a good reader likes a good challenge, so long as he gets paid well for his labours. I wonder, though, as I open the DVD packaging, how they have translated Oskar’s journey into film …
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)