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Review of The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Posted by Judson L Moore

The main character and narrator is Oskar Matzerath. Oskar is a man who never grew up, literally. He stunted his growth when he was three years old, at three feet. In the book, he does grow an additional 13 inches. Oskar is known for never parting with his red and white lacquered tin drum, which he is continuously beating on. Oskar’s other unique characteristic is that he has an extremely high-pitched singing voice, shatter glass. As Oskar grows taller, he also loses this glass-breaking voice. Oskar does not attend school but tries to educate himself instead of studying Goethe and Rasputin’s writings.

Jan Bronski isVincent Bronski’s son and Oskar’s mother. Oskar believes that Jan is his birth father. Jan is a sickly man who has such a history of illness that he is turned away from military service on numerous occasions. Jan is an employee of the Polish Postal Service in Danzig. He fights defending the post building from the invading Germans but loses and is taken prisoner and eventually executed.

Although Oskar believes Jan to be his birth father, Alfred Matzerath is also considered his father in the book. During WW1, Alfred was shot in the thigh, and while in recovery, he met Agnes Koljaiczek, a nurse. Agnes and Alfred got married after the war; Agnes is Oskar’s mother. Alfred is also a big supporter of Hitler during WWII. He is killed in the Russian takeover of Danzig after the war.

Oskar loses his virginity to Maria Truczinski. She has a son named Kurt, who Oskar believes is his, but Alfred also thinks that he got Maria pregnant. Maria and Alfred marry after Agnes dies, but after WWII, Oskar and Maria run away together to West Germany.

Klepp is a flutist who played with Oskar in his jazz band. Klepp is one of the few friends which Oskar receives visits from while in the mental institution.

Gottfried von Vittlar is another friend of Oskar’s who visits him while in the mental institution. They became friends when Gottfried met Oskar while he was climbing his mother’s apple tree. Just after WWII. Gottfried’s most significant role is that he turned Oskar in for the murder of Sister Dorothea. Oskar requested for Gottfried to do this even though he was innocent.

The Tin Drum is written as the autobiography of Oskar Matzerath. Oskar is thirty years old when he writes this autobiography and living in a mental institution in Düsseldorf, Germany. The autobiography covers his entire life-span and family history, including events from both WW1 and WWII, starting around the start of the 1900s and concluding a few years after WWII. He starts the book off with a history of his grandparents, emphasizing that they are Kashubes, a race from eastern Europe which lives in the Eastern Germany/Polish area but is not ethnically related to either of those countries.

His grandparents moved to Danzig, Poland, where his mother, Agnes, was born and took up the grocery and food reparation business. They are generally successful at this. Oskar talks a lot about the family’s interaction with the other store owners in the city and how those relationships affect the families’ situation and Oskar’s life.

The book’s premise is that Oskar has ‘decided’ at age three to stop growing at just three feet tall. This was catalyzed by a tin drum Oskar received from his mother. Along with this decision, Oskar acquires a unique vocal capability that allows him to sing at such high-pitched frequencies that he can shatter glass with his voice. This talent comes in very handy for Oskar at times but is abused by others. Using this voice helps Oskar break and protect his drum from being taken away from him, which is crucial because Oskar refuses ever to be parted with the drum.

Some rather strange occurrences happen on behalf of Oskar’s unusual talents and drives through the book’s course. Oskar’s main obsession is with the red and white lacquered tin drum. He must always have a drum with him no matter what. He uses it as a tool to remember past events and people. He has to replace his drum very frequently because of his poor treatment of it (while playing) and because it is just a toy drum (thus isn’t built very well), but he always gets the same type every time.

Oskar has two “presumptive fathers.” Both Alfred Matzerath and Jan Bronski are believed to be Oskar’s father (one of them anyway). Alfred is Oskar’s mother’s husband, but she had a long-time affair with Jan, her first cousin. Oskar’s physical handicap and his slight mental retardation suggest that incest could be a factor. These two father figures could hardly be more different in their views. Alfred is a member of the Nazi Party and a massive supporter of Hitler, Jan is a Polish Nationalist who is very anti-Nazi.

His mother dies before WWII, so he stays with Jan in Danzig, which unfortunately is the first city to be invaded by Germany. Jan is part of the resistance of the Nazi’s, but after the Nazi’s take the city, Jan is captured and executed, leaving Oskar all alone. At this time, Alfred gets remarried to Maria Truczinski, who is also Oskar’s first love. They get married because Maria is pregnant, and they think Alfred is the father. But this isn’t true, Oskar is actually the father, but nobody knows this until the baby, Kurt, is born, and then it is obvious who the father is. Unfortunately for Oskar (and probably fortunately for everybody else), Kurt refuses to have anything to do with Oskar, especially circum to Oskar’s wish that Kurt would have an equal fascination with drumming as he does.

Baking up just a minute, it is essential to note some of Oskar’s activities during the war. He finds a group of entertainers with who he fits right in. They are all dwarfs and perform some form of ludicrous entertainment. This serves as a channel through which Oskar can drive his drumming and glass-breaking ability and get a positive return for it. They go about the front-lines of the war and entertain the soldiers there until France’s allied invasion. This invasion breaks up the performers, and Oskar goes back home.

While at home, Oskar becomes a group of youths who call themselves “The Dusters.” They are a group that is not necessarily anarchist, but they are not in favor of any highly-structured beurocratic organization. Using his voice, Oskar and The Dusters break into government buildings and churches.

Alfred is off fighting for the Nazis on the Russian front and is killed in battle there. This allows Maria and Oskar to be together and forces them to take Kurt and move to Maria’s sisters in Düsseldorf. Here the family takes up various jobs, including modeling for artists, trading on the black market, and engraving tombstones. All this just ties them over until Oskar starts up a jazz band that plays at a local nightclub. They become very successful at this night club, but it gets shut down when the owner dies. When the owner dies, it is suggested that they should not stop playing but instead go on tour. So Oskar and the band start playing at other regional venues and gets the exposure necessary to be offered a recording contract. The band’s music recordings are extremely popular, and the band gets rich off of the deal.

Oskar stops playing the drums very abruptly when the owner of the record company dies. He handles his grief by going out to the country and being alone. While out there, he finds the remains of a nurse he had known who was murdered. He takes her ring and ring finger and eventually has a friend, Vittlar, who turns him in for her murder. Oskar is wrongfully convicted of the murder but pleads insanity; thus, he ends up in the mental institution where he writes this ‘autobiography.

This book is so confusing to read! At every turn, there is a love affair or death and remarriage. It seems like Oskar falls in love with every woman of significance he comes across. I am curious if this is supposed to amplify the theme of his immaturity. It seems like the author is trying to tell us that anybody can be successful on some levels. This handicapped, immature, unfortunate person becomes rich, famous, in love, and one of the few survivors of WWII from the original characters in the book through so many unlikely events.

On the other hand, Oskar is portrayed as the guy who just never gets it. He has himself sent to the mental institution because he is tired of all the drastic changes and just wants to be somewhere where others will take care of him, and he won’t have any more worries. I think this is a conflict in the plot and makes the book hard to understand or get a significant meaning out of in the end. Such an elaborate character list is hard to effectively bring across in a book while maintaining both significance and the reader’s memory. Still, I think the author did an excellent job with this, mostly because all the significant characters would die off and be replaced with new names.

In conclusion, I am not sure what the author is trying to tell us here, rather than just the story itself, for its entertainment value. Because of this, I would have to say that he fails at conveying this message, at least to a reader like myself, which for his credit, I usually don’t understand the deep plots and symbolic significance in books anyway, so it might just be my shallowness which is unable to comprehend his genius. The book was kind of funny and sad at the same time, but I feel that all the love triangles and entering and exiting of characters are too confusing and too much to juggle in a book that only holds a leisure reading value.

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Judson L Moore
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Travel addict. Ambitious about making the world a better place. Writing what I learn along the way.

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