Oskar Matzerath, the narrator and protagonist of Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum, is a thirty-year-old hump-backed inmate of a mental hospital. Born in the city of Danzig in 1924, Oskar was “one of those clairaudient infants whose mental development is completed at birth and after that merely needs a certain amount of filling in.” The son of petty bourgeois shopkeeping parents, Oskar hears two things immediately after he is born: first his father’s statement that his son will take over the store when he grows up. The next words are his mother’s: “When little Oskar is three, he will have a toy drum.” Oskar quickly comes to a decision that he “would never under any circumstances be a grocer, that I would stop right there, remain as I was—and so I did.” On his third birthday, he gets his toy drum, flings himself down a flight of stairs, and stops growing—and for many years thereafter “I not only stayed the same size but clung to the same attire.” In order to be “exempted from the big and little catechism,” in order to “avoid playing the cash register,” Oskar makes the modern grand refusal: he refuses to “grow up.” He remains a three-year-old drummer—superior, detached, demonic, complete in his deformity.
The Tin Drum is divided into three parts. The first deals with the life and adventures of Oskar, his family and their circle of acquaintances in Danzig, and ends in 1939. The second part concerns the War; and part three is an account of Oskar’s experiences in post-war Germany and Europe, “the middle-class paradise we are living in today.” The central undertaking of this novel, in other words, is to deal with Nazi Germany from the inside, a field of experience which has thus far proved inaccessible to the literary imagination. And it does so by taking and developing as its point of view that one part of the human constitution which remains least touched by politics, most resistant to civilization in any form, and in its untouchability and resistance incorruptibly human—the primitive unconscious, the id. On one side Oskar represents this force—mad, selfish, insatiable, indifferent to the commands and sanctions of society. Existing in a state of anarchic and pre-moral savagery, he remains peculiarly remote from the organized and post-moral cannibalism into which modern German civilization propelled itself. The dialectic of The Tin Drum consists of the interplay between the irrational energies of Oskar and the irrational energies of the modern social world, energies which do not merely negate each other but oddly act as counterparts as well.
This account distorts and simplifies and omits a good deal; The Tin Drum is a large book, and the conception of Oskar is not to be exhausted by such a summary. It may, however, serve to suggest something of this work’s tone and quality. The Tin Drum is a novel which has a genuine concern for society, but it dramatizes that concern largely by means of devices which we associate with the imagination of the absurd. Its symbols are not merely multivalent; sometimes they aren’t symbols at all, or are symbolic of nothing beyond their arbitrariness and deceit. Its point of view is shifting and indeterminate; it regularly dissolves into a welter of self-referring rhetoric. It describes surreal events in dryly dispassionate prose, and represents such an action as picking up a pencil as if it were the building of Boulder Dam. Its episodes are frequently inconsequent, and when they are not inconsequent tend to be circular, the completeness of form embodying the sudden collapse of content. It alternates between scenes of the wildest and most scabrous humor and long patches of groping, unrelieved tedium. (The intention of imposing a special kind of stupefaction on its audience seems to me—however one wants to judge it—an integral function of this literature.) Much of the literature of the absurd uses these devices to speak directly to “the human condition”; and its representations of society are almost without exception abstractly symbolic. What is new and interesting about Grass’ work is that it attempts to combine the devices of the absurd, and the vision of experience which they entail, with a thick, detailed and often quasinaturalistic account of social reality.
The Tin Drum deals generally with meaninglessness and impossibility in all directions, but the absurdity upon which it most repeatedly focuses and which finally constitutes what must pass for its subject is the absurdity of history. The Europe which Oskar inhabits, for example, has lost, destroyed or absconded with its own past; and Oskar often thinks of going to America, “the land where people find whatever they have lost, even missing grandfathers.” Yet Oskar (like his creator) is a native of Danzig, half Polish, half German; and he is sentimentally attached to Polish history, which is itself a fantasy of romantic defeat, of Uhlans attacking armored tanks with lances, of conquest, partition, and crazy, admirable patriotism. But then so are the Germans attached to Poland—
I look for the land of the Poles that is lost to the Germans, for the moment at least. Nowadays the Germans have started searching for Poland with credits, Leicas, and compasses, with radar, divining rods, delegations, and moth-eaten provincial students’ associations in costume. Some carry Chopin in their hearts, others thoughts of revenge. Condemning the first four partitions of Poland, they are busily planning a fifth; in the meantime flying to Warsaw via Air France in order to deposit, with appropriate remorse, a wreath on the spot that was once the ghetto. One of these days they will go searching for Poland with rockets. I, meanwhile, conjure up Poland on my drum. And this is what I drum: Poland’s lost, but not forever, all’s lost, but not forever, Poland’s not lost forever.
These forlorn snatches from the Polish national anthem, however, lead Oskar back not so much to the pathos of national history as they do to a particular spot in space and moment in time: a potato field in Kashubia where one day in the distant past a man escaping from the police hid for some hours beneath the four capacious skirts of Oskar’s grandmother. During that interval Oskar’s mother was conceived, all the trouble was begun, and Oskar’s fondest hope is often to get out of all, preferably by returning with his mother to his grandmother’s womb; failing that his “aim is to get back to the umbilical cord; that is the sole purpose behind this whole vast verbal effort.”
But it is an effort doomed to failure, for “History, blaring special communiqués at the top of its lungs, sped like a well-greased amphibious vehicle over the roads and waterways of Europe and through the air as well, conquering everything in its path”—its abstractions at least as real as the people it rolls over, if not more so. The War begins, and “The Free Hanseatic City of Danzig celebrated the Anschluss of its brick Gothic to the Greater German Reich and gazed jubilantly into the blue eyes…of Adolph Hitler, the Führer and Chancellor, as he stood in his black Mercedes distributing rectangular salutes.” The senseless, ant-like “purposeful industry” of the War comes to a climax in the Russian descent on Danzig. “For centuries Pomerelians, Brandenburgers, Teutonic Knights, Poles, Swedes, and a second time Swedes, Frenchmen, Prussians, and Russians, even Saxons, had made history by deciding every few years that Danzig was worth burning.” At the sight of the still intact city, Marshal Rokossovski “remembered his great international precursors and set the whole-place on fire with his artillery in order that those who came after him might work off their excess energies in rebuilding.” And while Danzig is burning Oskar looks out of a window “and was amazed to see what a burst of vitality our venerable old city had been able to summon up.” Yet the absurdities of Oskar’s observations are as nothing compared with the behavior of his father, a minor Nazi official, who while the Russians are blowing up the city was “as bewildered as a child who can’t make up his mind whether to go on believing in Santa Claus, and for the first time expressed doubts about the final victory.” And of the post-war binge of prosperity Oskar remarks that every binge is “followed by a hangover, and one symptom of this hangover is that the deeds and misdeeds which only yesterday were fresh and alive and real, are reduced to history and explained as such.” Oskar rejects history, but he beats on his drum to keep memory fresh.
One of the more striking characteristics of the literature of the absurd has to do with its use of displacement. The Tin Drum employs this device to considerable effect; it maintains a large distance between the events it describes and the emotions ordinarily “appropriate” to those events. Indeed the short circuit of emotion and event is sometimes absolute. Such a maneuver acts to add another dimension of distortion and negation to the novel’s imaginative view, but it also acts as a positive defense against certain emotions and as a means of controlling them. The events with which The Tin Drum mostly deals normally elicit the most violent emotions—disgust, rage, horror, revulsion, murderous hatred. These violences are mastered, modulated, distanced and turned into comedy through the separations, displacements and dislocations of the absurd. The characteristic tone of The Tin Drum is a cool exuberance, and this in itself is something of an achievement. But at the center of The Tin Drum there is another displacement which both accounts for this novel’s particular interest and expresses its author’s dilemma. The whole novel is made possible by the conception of Oskar, a totally conscious, totally irrational, perpetual three-year-old. But this conception also permits Grass to bypass the most important, and probably insurmountable, moral question possible to a young German: What, had I been old enough, would I have done then? Had the choice been forced upon me, what decision would I have made? Oskar’s decision not to grow up permits this confrontation to be avoided, and this avoidance represents the outer limits of this novel’s moral and imaginative vision. Yet we must recognize as well that this evasion is inseparable from its imaginative achievement and assertion, and must consider once again that in such strange shifts and twists does literary creation find its origins.
June 1, 1963