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Monday, December 21, 2015

Book Review: The Tin Drum (1959) by Gunter Grass

David Bennett memorably portrayed Oskar Matzerath, the perpetually child-like dwarf hero of The Tin Drum, in the 1979 film version of the book.
Book Review:
 The Tin Drum (1959)
by Gunter Grass

  The Tin Drum is probably the most famous work by a German author between the end of World War II and today.  Not only the book, which is the only post World War II German novel that anyone you know has ever read, if they've read a post World War II German novel at all.  The film, which is an incredibly literal rendition of the novel, won the Palme D'Or in Cannes and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1979/1980.

 Oskar is a Zelig/Forest Gump/Stewie Griffin type of character, a pale dwarf who claims that he voluntarily stopped growing at the age of 3, when he threw himself down the stairs.  Oskar lives in Danzig, now Gdansk, a German enclave in present day Poland.   He is the child of an unconventional mother, one who shares affections with a German Deli owner and a Polish post-office worker.  The dynamic between the Mother and her two lovers ends in her death.   The rest of the novel concerns Oskar's life and adventures.  He is what you call an "unreliable" narrator, and he shifts between first and third person narration within the same paragraph.

 Grass came from a heavily German populated area of present day Poland called Kashubia.  Kashubians speak a Polish dialect, and are typically considered Poles.  However, because of the heavy presence of Germans in Danzig, and Danzig's role as the economic engine of Kashubia, Kashubians were not particularly "Polish."  Grass traces the mutability of ethnic and linguistic identity over the course of The Tin Drum.

 Oskar's own experience in World War II mirrors that of the Kashubians.  They were a friendly slavic population to the Nazi regime, and to the Soviets they were oppressed Poles awaiting liberation.   They were also in a good position to inherit businesses abandoned by ethnic Germans after Danzig was captured by the Russians.  One aspect of The Tin Drum doesn't really come across unless you actually read the book/watch the movie, that's the ribaldry of Oskar's adventures.  He is perceived as an asexual dwarf, but his sexual situation is very important to his inner narrative and takes up a good deal of the 550 page plus book.

  Like many of the other plot points in the narrative, Oskar's obsession with his parentage and the parentage of other characters in the book, including a brother who he maintains is his son, mirrors the obsessions of the Nazis, with their emphasis on racial hygiene. Although The Tin Drum is but one volume of the authors Danzig trilogy, it stands on it's own as one of the most enduring narratives of World War II as experienced by Eastern Europeans.

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