Sunday, January 29, 2012

469. The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass

History: This book was written in 1959. Initial reaction to The Tin Drum was mixed. It was called blasphemous and pornographic by some and legal action was taken against it and Grass. However, by 1965 sentiment had cemented into public acceptance and it soon became recognized as a classic of post-World War II literature, both in Germany and around the world.
Plot: The story revolves around the life of Oskar Matzerath, as narrated by himself when confined in a mental hospital during the years 1952-1954. Born in 1924 in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland), with an adult's capacity for thought and perception, he decides never to grow up when he hears his father declare that he would become a grocer. Gifted with a piercing shriek that can shatter glass or be used as a weapon, Oskar declares himself to be one of those "auditory clairvoyant babies", whose "spiritual development is complete at birth and only needs to affirm itself". He retains the stature of a child while living through the beginning of World War II, several love affairs, and the world of postwar Europe. Through all this a tin drum that he received as a present on his third birthday remains his treasured possession, and he is willing to kill to retain it.
Oskar considers himself to have two "presumptive fathers" - his mother's husband Alfred, a member of the Nazi Party, and her secret lover and cousin Jan, a Danzig Pole, who is executed for defending the Polish Post Office in Danzig during the German invasion of Poland. Oskar's mother having died, Alfred marries Maria, a woman who is secretly Oskar's first mistress. After marrying Alfred, Maria gives birth to Oskar's possible son, Kurt. But Oskar is disappointed to find that the baby persists in growing up, and will not join him in ceasing to grow at the age of three.
During the war, Oskar joins a troupe of performing dwarfs who entertain the German troops at the front line. But when his second love, the diminutive Roswitha, is killed by Allied troops in the invasion of Normandy, Oskar returns to his family in Danzig where he becomes the leader of a criminal youth gang. The Russian army soon captures Danzig, and Alfred is shot by invading troops after he goes into seizures while swallowing his party pin to avoid being revealed as a Nazi.
Oskar moves with his widowed stepmother and their son to Düsseldorf, where he models in the nude with Ulla and works engraving tombstones. Oskar decides to live apart from Maria and her son Kurt after mounting tensions. He decides on a flat owned by the Zeidlers. Upon moving in, he falls in love with the Sister Dorothea, a neighbor, but he later fails to seduce her. During an encounter with Klepp, Klepp asks Oskar how he has an authority over the judgement of music. Oskar, willing to prove himself once and for all to Klepp, a fellow musician, picks up his drum and sticks despite his vow to never play again after Alfred's death and plays a measure on his drum. The ensuing events lead Klepp and Oskar and Scholle (guitarist) to form the Rhine River Three jazz band. They are discovered by Mr. Schmuh who invites them to play at the Onion Cellar club. After a virtuoso performance, a record company talent seeker discovers Oskar the jazz drummer and offers a contract. Oskar soon achieves fame and riches. One day while walking through a field he finds a severed finger: the ring finger of Sister Dorothea, who has been murdered. He then meets and befriends Vittlar. Oskar allows himself to be falsely convicted of the murder and is confined to an insane asylum, where he writes his memoirs.
Review: Oskar Matzerath is an unreliable narrator, as his sanity, or insanity, never becomes clear. He tells the tale in first person, though he occasionally diverts to third person, sometimes within the same sentence. As an unreliable narrator, he may contradict himself within his autobiography, as with his varying accounts of, but not exclusively, the Defense of the Polish Post Office, his grandfather Koljaiczek's fate, his paternal status over Kurt, Maria's son, and many others.
The novel is strongly political in nature, although it goes beyond a political novel in the writing's stylistic plurality. There are elements of allegory, myth and legend.
The Tin Drum has religious overtones, both Jewish and Christian. Oskar holds conversations with both Jesus and Satan throughout the book. His gang members call him 'Jesus', then he refers to himself and his penis as 'Satan' later in the book.
World War II is compared with Oskar's art and music. The implied statement is that art has the ability to defeat war and hatred. Oskar escapes fighting through his musical talent. In chapter nine: The Rostrum, Oskar manages to disrupt the Nazi rally by playing his drums. Oskar plays a rhythm which is more complex and sensual than the march step of the rally. Despite his disruption of the activities of the Nazi party, the power of his music remains ambiguous. It seems that the music of the drum is disruptive and not a moral force aligned against the Nazis. This is especially evident in another component of Oskar's music, his voice. As a substitution for singing, Oskar's voice is a terrible scream which exerts incredible power. Oskar's voice has the power to break glass, which he uses as the leader of a gang of criminals to rob stores by breaking their front windows. Grass's magical poetic imagery subtly aligns with political/cultural events and the reader realizes that Oskar is somehow an embodiment of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass which signaled the unmasked aggression of the Nazi Party. Ultimately Oskar remains a complex, magically symbolic character, embodying the wish to dismantle the emergent Nazi party as well as the violence of the party.
Oskar at the young age of three comes to the conclusion that growing up was not something for him. He came to this conclusion based on listening to the conversations of his parents and their fellow shopkeepers. He sees the physical aspects of romance and their effect on his mother. He looks at adulthood has this horrendous world that has no way out so he decides to remain a child. However what Oskar did not realize was that he could only change his appearance he could not alter time. Therefore Oskar eventually realizes that life continues on and that the horrors within in such as romance are pivotal for not growth but survival. Oskar allows himself to give up the drum and eventually grow because he recognizes that freedom is found through decisions not through time. This is meaning that through one's experiences your opinions and decisions become more complex and this is what growth is: experiences. He realizes that time is merely a vehicle for growth to flow through humanity. His freedom is found by experiencing life and therefore being able to make more complex decisions. Ultimately Oskar recognizes that with growth comes freedom. This changes Oskar's whole perspective on life because now he no longer looks at adults as this dastardly beings but rather complex individuals that stimulate society.
Opening Line: “Granted, I’m an inmate in a mental institution.”
Closing Line: “Better start running the black cooks coming. Ha Ha Ha!”
Quotes: "What, after all, is a clock? Without your grownup it is nothing. It is the grownup who winds it, who sets it back or ahead, who takes it tot he watchmaker to be checked, cleaned, and when necessary repaired. Just as with the cuckoo that stops calling too soon, just as with upset saltcellars, spiders seen in the morning, black cats on the left, the oil portrait of Uncle that falls off the wall because the nail has come loose in the plaster, just as in a mirror, grownups see more in and behind a clock than any clock can justify."
Rating: Difficult.

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