Here Come the Drums, Here Come the Drums

After breezing through Peter Stamm’s Sieben Jahre in just a couple of days, I was fooled into thinking that I was ready for a tougher task.  For a long time now, I’ve had a copy of Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) sitting on the shelves, so before the adrenalin rush of cruising through Stamm’s book could wear off, I launched into the monstrous tome you can see on the left – three weeks later…

Günter Grass, for many reasons, has become a rather controversial figure, but there is no doubting the fact that he is one of the most important German literary figures of the twentieth century – and Die Blechtrommel is the book that made him.  It’s a huge, rambling piece of magical realism, divided into three books which loosely cover the period before WWII, the war itself, and then the post-war years in West Germany.  The novel is partly autobiographical; however, once you start reading it, you suspect that few of the more interesting scenes come from Grass’ personal memories 😉

The story is narrated by its hero, Oskar Matzerath, a man approaching his thirtieth birthday trapped inside a mental institute.  In the company of his helpful guard Bruno, Oskar decides to set down the story of his life (beginning, strangely enough with the conception of his mother…), telling the tale of how he lived through some of the most dramatic and sickening events in human history.  And, as he works his way through his story, the events take place to the beat of a drum…

The drum is the latest of a line descended from the one he received, as promised by his mother, for his third birthday.  The red-and-white tin drum, ever present, helps Oskar beat out the rhythm of history, taking the reader back in time to watch little Oskar growing up in Danzig.  Sentient from birth, stuck (of his own choosing) at the height of a three-year-old, with a voice that can shatter glass, this is – as you can imagine – no ordinary narrator.

After the simple, straight-forward text of Sieben Jahre, Die Blechtrommel came as a bit of a shock.  Put simply, it’s a monster of a book.  The dense, complex text, with every page containing a host of unknown words, tested my German reading ability to the limit.  To wade through the 779 pages, I spent fifteen days out of twenty two, with a couple of rests between the books to relax with something a little less strenuous.  In addition to the linguistic issues, the bizarre plot (or lack of it) also made it a tricky read.  In one sense, it’s a pretty straight-forward linear work, following Oskar and his family from 1899 to 1954; in another, it’s a never-ending stream of increasingly bizarre episodes in the vein of Gabriel García Márquez or Haruki Murakami, never allowing you to relax in the certainty of where the story is going next.

Oskar is the focus of the book, a classic unreliable narrator who fabricates and embellishes, occasionally admitting that matters occurred slightly differently to how he had been portraying them.  Through his eyes, we see the rise of the Nazis and the start of the war in the ever-shifting city of Danzig (Gdańsk), a town divided between Polish and Germanic allegiances.  He is a witness to history, allowing us to relive events such as Kristallnacht or the taking of the Polish post-office in Danzig – although what we see has to be taken with a pinch of salt…

Our vertically-challenged friend is also a harbinger of death, bringing about (intentionally or accidentally) the demise of a host of characters, including his mother, his two fathers (it’s a long story), a gang of boys he takes over, a dwarf lover, a nurse he takes a shine to…  He is less a person than a tool of destiny, a 94-cm figure dooming all he comes into contact with.  Whether as a thief, a revue performer, a nude model or an engraver of tombstones, the banging of his drum inevitably leaves death in its wake.

What makes Die Blechtrommel fascinating is the sheer variety of stories the writer produces.  The start of the book, where Oskar’s grandmother uses her ingenuity (and clothing) to rescue a fugitive criminal, is a classic scene, a story which could stand alone as a great piece of literature.  That is just the beginning though: from there, Oskar takes us to his chaotic first – and last – day of school; a career as a jazz drummer in a rather unusual night club; an unfortunate incident with a cursed wooden carving; a jam session with a baby Jesus statue…  The recaps which begin to appear towards the end of the book serve to remind the reader of just how many great stories the book contains.

While it may appear that it’s just a mad collection of over-the-top anecdotes, there is a more serious side to Die Blechtrommel.  Grass skilfully portrays the appeal of the Nazi party to the ordinary working man, only to turn the tables by concentrating on the gruesome, horrendous details of the atrocities committed by those people in the years before the war.  Oskar’s quasi-magical qualities allow him to bear witness to events he should not have seen, such as the desperate defence of the post-office by workers who believed fervently that the French would rush to their aid, and that the British fleet was sailing into Gdańsk’s harbour as they spoke…

Die Blechtrommel is a wonderful book, a truly memorable version of twentieth-century history.  It does sag a little at times (inevitably so in a book of this size and daring), but it is well worth the effort.  I’m not sure that I’ll be rereading it any time soon, but if I do, I’ll probably approach it differently next time, taking it a chapter at a time and treating it as self-contained stories, perhaps even selecting particular passages to have another look at.  Whatever you may think of the writer (and there are many people who don’t think that much of him), his creation, Oskar is well worth getting to know.  Make the time to find out for yourself – even if it takes a lot of finding 😉

12 thoughts on “Here Come the Drums, Here Come the Drums

  1. I read this way back when I was just finishing high school feeling proud that I could figure out what so much of it really meant. I loved it at the time yet I've never gotten around to re-reading it. Someday.


  2. Lizzy – Which fish scene? Do you mean the death by fish? Not that I'll have a clue anyway 😉

    C.B. – I'm sure it'll take me forever too, but I do intend to reread it – some day 😉


  3. I'm with C.B. – 23 years ago, I loved this book. A lot of it has stuck with me, although who knows in what memory-mangled form.

    Grass later wrote an entire novel, a good one, of fish scenes.

    The great audacity of the Oskar Matzerath character is that in some ways he closely resembles the author but he also has parallels with Hitler. In 1959, this was a literary punk move.


  4. Tom – Yes, he's a rather ambiguous figure, old Oskar…

    …which is rather apt in light of the scandals which dog his creator 😉


  5. I'm glad I have read this years ago. I don'r rememeber it to be challenging at all but I'm a native speaker so it doesn't count. I'm sure it's one of the more difficult ones (unless you will try Sebald)…
    I thought it was an amazing treasure trunk of a book.
    I'm not in the mood to read him at present. I just think it's deplorable the way he behaves and he is about to damage his reputation and may well end up being a forgotten author very soon.


  6. undoubtly his best book ,think shame he tends to say so many wrong things these days but he is the grand old man of german lit I would like to read the new translation thou I read the old one ,all the best stu


  7. Caroline – There's a lot of specific vocabulary and very long, meandering, clause-laden sentences in Grass' writing – as I said in the post Stamm and Grass are like night and day difficulty-wise!

    Stu – I've only read a couple (this and 'Katz und Maus'), and I'm unlikely to read anything else soon. I'd like to try 'Hundejahre' to finish off the trilogy, but another 800 pages of Grass…


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