The Tin Drum: A novel by Gunter Grass; Coming to terms with history through fiction


It is heartening that this book is available in English. The author has already been rewarded with a nobel prize and lives a secluded life apparently, only giving an occasional interview in English to BBC- beyond the German. The writer also attracted a lot of controversy when he admitted a few years back of his Nazi connection. So, like all great writers he remains an enigma to all.
The book is phenomenal and brilliant, for it tries to capture through fiction the life in Germany just before and after the war broke out. This Gunter does through a character Oskar who is about to reach his teens but has decided not to grow beyond three years. He is dwarfish or gmomish and shatters his drums when he is angry by beating; or glasses around him through his screams: sometimes to steal from a shop, with the help of an accomplice, at others to just express his anguish. He, apparently grown up, narrates the story of his younger age, from a mental asylum where he has found the refuge. So it is mostly through symbols, that the author builds a powerful character.
Oskar is a product of a bad mothering by a promiscuous and glutonous woman, who indulges him by never stopping his destructive drum-shattering or glass-breaking. Oskar often leaves her behind to her lover, whom he suspects of being his father, to go out beating his drum in anguish, at their secret hide in a hotel. She pays for the glasses or the drums Oskar destroys. She kills herself by over eating when she is pregnant for the second time, leaving the Oskar, the drummer boy, almost orphaned. A spoilt child he is, he is anguished more at the loss of his mother. There is no one to indulge him anymore, while he apparently resents the mere sympathy he receives from some of the people for becoming a motherless young boy. Both: his suspected and presumptuous fathers, a Polish and a German, offer him almost no help. His legal or presumptive father though, mostly tried earlier to entertain his mother by cooking food for her and tolerating the presence of her Polish lover, when she was alive. His suspected father, Jan Bronski, later got excecuted while he was out only to help Oskar repair his drum, as he and thirty other people were founnd defending the Polish post office from a Nazi attack, where he worked, and France did not come to defend the Poland, author notes, in spite of the treaty. Oskar keeps the guilt secret while he recoves from a sickness in the aftermath of this incident.
A few friends Oskar made become victims of different tragidies. One of them, Herbert, dies while trying to make love to a statue in a museum, while another, a jewish Toy-shop owner, who supplies him drums, disappears in the hands of Nazis. A mutual friend of Oskar and Herbert, ..’Meyn, who is an SA man, who drank gin all day and played trumpet too beautifully for words’, before he joined the SA and was seen burning a synagogue of the town, comes to mourn the death of Herbert and reaches for the gin bottle after a long time and played the trumpet too beautifully for words. But being a Nazi he was denied sympathies at the funnerel and he returns to his apartment to kill his four pet cats. He was expelled for this cruelty against animals by the Nazi party. Oskar is truly alarmed at the loss of his toy-seller friend and worries if the world is going to remain toyless in future. These poignant discription crisply sum up the situation the writer tries to depict. There is very little of the literature available in English, by a German author, which tried to deal with the genesis of the rise of Nazism and the consequent world war. This book is a very brave attempt by Gunter Grass, to deal with this subject, which still creates strong reactions within Germany and beyond. He has done it with remarkable style which does not get lost even in the translation. Though the details in the books are at times tiresome and alien, particularly when a reader is not aware that the author is talking about a town that German occupied during the war and currently is in Poland; but they are authentic and deserve the attention of the people who are interested in the authors like Gunter Grass. He is a very celebrted author but less read than he merits, perhaps.
A mental asylum is the safest place to be, when the society is collapsing around you and a war is going on. Seeing the world theough an eye of a three year old is another security. Growing up is precarious. More so, with the sexual awakening of Oskar through a slightly older girl Maria, a sister of his late friend Herbert, who assists his presumptive father Matzerath at his shop; which the author has described using symbols like respberries, fizz powder, mashrooms and growing up an eleventh finger. The eleventh finger that could not read or write but signs for him. This pleasure does not last long, as Oskar discovers Maria actively copulating with Matzerath, unlike as with him, as she prtended to be asleep when Oskar sleeps with her. But there is a consolation for him, that he has beaten Matzerath once again, in impregnating Maria just by more than a week. Oskar takes satisfaction in the fact that Matzerath could not impregnate his mother either, and he is a son of Jan Bronski, the charming Polish man executed by the firing squad. The pregnancy of Maria made Matzerath marry him and she becomes his step mother. This comes as a shock to the reader lulled by symbolic erotic details, that flow in a poetic language, of the Oskar’s sexual awakening. Once again Oskar has been wronged totally.
When Maria comes to visit him at the mental asylum, Oskar puts the fizz powder in her left hand and puts his saliva on it and urges her to lick it, like she used to do earlier. Maria looks genuinely shocked and hastily leaves in tears. The death of Stalin is hinted at, in the meanwhile, in their conversation.
Before Oskar had unsuccessfully tried to abort the child of him Maria was bearing by once causing her fall and then by trying to stab her protruding belly. Oskar has an affair with a woman in his neighborhood, in order to forget the venella smell of Maria, whose husband was a gay as per Oskar, who later commits suicide. He describes the faminine smells of different women with symbols and passion. Without any remorse, Oskar goes on living a life that is as blighted emotionally as it was physically; giving the world what it has given him. In a way his life is a story of survival and continuation of his beliefs in spite of others. He does not end up looking a considerate and kindly person. But there is not enough reasons to blame him for what he made of himself, if one thinks that Oskar was not particularly a decent man.
As a literature this book may remain a masterpiece for a long time to come, and an inspiration for the people who think a good work of art is the medicine of the troubled souls.

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