I went into this novel blind, only having heard some unflattering things about the author that I chose not to explore. I am not even sure how The Tin Drum came to be on my second list, but I am quite happy it did.
Opening with a narration from a mental hospital, the book definitely grabs your attention and skillfully guides you through family histories, the backdrop of WWII and back to the hospital, leaving you guessing why the protagonist is there.
The Tin Drum beats out a family’s history, a boy’s questionable parentage and physical and mental state, while taking us deep into the early days of the infamous World War II.
Herr Oskar Matzerath is the patient and narrator who refers to himself, alternately, in both the first and third person. He questions his paternity as he often witnesses his mother and uncle in intimate embraces. An obsession with his tin drum becomes problematic for those who try to separate him from his instrument as his screams sets off the breaking of glass; windows, cups, dishes, etc. His tales are suspect at times leading the reader to believe him to be mentally unstable. Tales involve fighting off Russian invaders, joining a youth gang, sexploits, playing in a jazz band, and other far-fetched stories. While questions are eventually answered, it remains unclear as to what is fact and what fiction. Give the boy his drum…
Oskar’s mother, Agnes falls in love with her cousin Jan, but marries Alfred Matzerath. She maintains her relationship with Jan, also married, throughout her marriage and it is no secret. When Oskar falls down the basement stairs, Alfred is blamed for the accident although Oskar claims it was self-imposed. Agnes carries a lifelong grudge against her husband for Oskar’s resulting physical and mental difficulties and in turn feels guiltless for carrying on with Jan. After getting pregnant again, fearing Jan has fathered the child, she attempts a self-abortion with devastating results. A strong woman and devoted mother, her absence breaks many hearts.
Ferdinand Schmuh, meets Oskar and his musician friends and offers them a gig at his Onion Cellar, an offbeat club that serves no food or drink, but only onions which the customers peel at their tables. Once peeled, all customers are free to cry and wail and cleanse themselves with the Rhine River Three playing in the background. A club for the guilty doesn’t sound like a bad idea.
What novel–or what else in the world–can have the epic scope of a photograph album?
In the entrance I already caught a whiff of that school smell which has been described often enough and which is more intimate than any perfume in the world.
It would be difficult to decide what to discuss with Mr. Grass as he has such an enormous breadth of experience from his early years up through the current time. Perhaps I’d steer clear of the political tinderbox and instead, ask how he has been able to be such a prolific and extraordinary writer.
My rating for The Tin Drum is a 9 out of 10.
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