A novel that had the impact of a bomb. World War II and the history of the century from the perspective of a small man — and a reckoning with Germany as it rebuilt itself during the 1950s.
One really has to recall what the political mood in the Federal Republic of Germany was like during the 1950s in order to understand the impact this novel had on readers and critics.
At the time of its publication, in 1959, Adenauer's West Germany was still struggling with its Nazi past. The perpetrators and followers of the regime were given quiet absolution and even placed in high positions in politics and the administration.
And then came The Tin Drum, the debut novel of Günter Grass, who had previously published only one volume of poetry and was actually a trained stonemason and sculptor.
The book struck like a bomb: It was bawdy, cross, and written in a ribald, baroque style. And it broke all sorts of taboos. It revisited the history of the century and of World War II from the perspective of Oskar Matzerath. Having decided at the age of three to stop growing, he is a short-stature person who can shatter glass with a mere scream, and who can pull an entire orchestra out of time by banging on his tin drum.
With him, Grass created an unforgettable literary figure.
His novel also pays tribute to his hometown of Gdansk and the Eastern Pomerania region inhabited Kashubian ethnic group in Poland, which had been annexed by Nazi Germany.
The little man with the drum
The novel begins with a somewhat bizarre scene. On a cold autumn day in 1899, Anna Bronski is sitting on a potato field as she watches a man fleeing from police officers. She offers him shelter under her four skirts, which she is wearing to keep herself warm. In this cozy hiding place, Joseph, the man, sires a girl called Agnes.
Twenty-four years later, Agnes becomes the mother of Oskar Matzerath, the tin drummer and narrator of the novel. He decides as a little boy to stop growing.
"So as not to have to rattle a cash register, I stuck to my drum and didn't grow a finger's breadth from my third birthday on, remained the three-year-old, who, three times as smart, was towered over by grown-ups, yet stood head and shoulders above them all, who felt no need to measure his shadow against theirs, who was inwardly and outwardly fully mature."
Little Oskar looks at life from down below. And comments both perceptively and maliciously on life going on around him — about the growing influence of National Socialism; about his father joining the party. Or about his mother leading a double life from the very start and regularly meeting with her lover — which will later become her doom. And about his own first sexual experiences, about how he sees the beginning of the Second World War, how he then stirs things up in a theater on the war front — and finally ends up in a closed treatment facility.
The reckoning with his life is sobering.
"Born beneath light bulbs, was given a drum, sang, shattered glass, smelled vanilla, coughed in churches...watched ants as they crawled, buried the drum, moved to the West, lost what was East, learned to carve stone and posed as a model, went back to my drum and inspected concrete, made money, arrested, convicted, confined, now soon to be freed."
All this against the backdrop of the two world wars, as well as in the context of the restorative mood of the post-Second World War period, one in which the recent past was collectively suppressed. The Tin Drum was a reckoning with the "wiping the slate clean" mentality of the 1950s.
The Tin Drum — hated, loved, and internationally celebrated
With The Tin Drum, German postwar literature returned to the world stage. Even though other much-noted novels were published in 1959, such as Heinrich Böll's Billiards at Half-Past Nine and Uwe Johnson's Speculations about Jakob, no other book caused as much sensation as The Tin Drum did.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who like Grass was also a member of "Gruppe 47" — the prestigious literary circle that began meeting regularly beginning in 1947 — wrote in a first review that this book had achieved becoming "world-class literature." Grass became a star with his very first novel.
But there was also criticism of Grass' political stances, of the drastic erotic scenes in the book, of his lack of taboos regarding the church, family and everything that was sacred to conservatives at the time. They considered Grass to be blasphemous and obscene.
Right from the start, however, the exultation was much greater than the criticism. Many writers, including internationally acclaimed ones, venerated Grass, among them Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nadine Gordimer, Salman Rushdie and Kenzaburo Oe. Following the publication of The Tin Drum, US magazine Time described Grass as the world's greatest living novelist.
Director Volker Schlöndorff turned the first two parts of the novel into a film in 1979. Like the book, it became a huge success, garnering the Palme d'Or in Cannes, as well as the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
When Grass received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, 50 years after the publication of The Tin Drum, the jury wrote in its statement that this book represented the rebirth of the German novel in the 20th century. It was ambivalent praise — as if Grass had not gone on to write several more novels, stories and poems.
But even John Irving, writer colleague and friend of Günter Grass, said that he never achieved the quality of the first novel in his later works. Perhaps there is a note of melancholy in that comment.
Still, to this day, no postwar German-speaking writer has had as much influence on the literary world as Günter Grass with his Blechtrommel, or The Tin Drum.
Günter Grass: The Tin Drum, Vintage / Random House (German title: Die Blechtrommel, 1959). English translation: Ralph Manheim and Breon Mitchell.
Günter Grass (1927-2015) was one of the most significant and internationally respected writers of postwar German literature. Among his most important works is the so-called Danzig Trilogy, which includes the novels The Tin Drum and Dog Years as well as the novella Cat and Mouse, which were published between 1959 and 1963. Grass was a participant of the legendary writers' meetings called "Gruppe 47" and for many years a politically involved, but also controversial intellectual. In 1999, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, with the jury also expressly acknowledging his role as a public figure.