Absurdism, Books

The Tin Drum

Oscar Matzerath bangs a toy drum through the Germany and Poland of the Nazi years, in Gunter Grass’ 1959 comic novel The Tin Drum. Oscar is an ambiguous complex figure, childlike but not innocent, vulnerable and untouchable, three foot high with an adult brain, intellectually developed and morally stunted. He uses his drum to summon a narrative into existence. Oscar is a first person narrator, aged thirty, looking back to his childhood and writing his life story. He explicitly tells us he is using his drum in lieu of memory. “If I didn’t have my drum, which…recalls all the details…I would be a poor fellow with no known grandparents” and “today I drummed away a long morning putting questions to my drum, wanting to know if the lightbulbs in our bedroom were forty or sixty watts”. He claims to be literally drumming up the details of his back story for his narrative. This percussive prose is written from his bed in a mental hospital where he has been found responsible at a trial in 1951 for the murder of a nurse. A visitor to Oscar’s room brings him a replacement drum and as she “prepared to depart, she took along the old drum I’d battered to death during my description of [the previous chapter]”. This is his confession and he is drumming up excuses.

And if all this is not unreliable enough he claims to remember his birth at his parents house in Danzig in 1924 and the amniotic gestation period before. He asserts that his human mental development was complete at the moment of birth. “Let me say at once: I was one of those clairaudient infants whose mental development is compete at birth and thereafter simply confirmed. As impervious to influence as I had been as an embryo, listening only to myself, gazing at my own reflection in the amniotic fluid, so closely and critically did I now eavesdrop upon my parents’ first spontaneous remarks beneath the light bulbs. My ear was wide awake.” At the age of three he wills himself not to grow any further and so mentally develops an adult brain within a three year old’s three foot high body. He has the power of singing at such a pitch that he can shatter glass at a distance and can intricately engrave glass with voice alone: “I asked the waiter to bring me an empty glass, sang a heart-shaped opening into it, sang a curving inscription with flourishes beneath”. He cannot decide whether to tell his story in the first or third person, and oscillates between the two, so there is something of the royal ‘we’ about it all, something of the delusion of grandeur. He tells us he has leaned to read by studying Goethe and Rasputin. Both the source of his narrative and the claims he makes contained within it stretch credulity. This story is not articulated in a way that makes false claims about its truthfulness.

This bizarre man-child gives us a darkly comic vision of the Nazi years up to the start of the war. A local party member, notwithstanding his exemplary conduct on Kristallnacht in burning down a synagogue, is ejected from the party following some casual animal cruelty for “conduct unbecoming to a Nazi”. Oscar drums a waltz in 3/4 time at a Nazi rally. The Nazi goose-stepping goes all to cock as the rally’s drummers, who were drumming in 4/4 time, find their rhythm disrupted. Oscar’s arsonist grandfather evades the law, emigrates and make his millions in the United States, in matches and fire insurance. Scientists are called in and Dr Hallatz publishes an article in a professional journal called The World of Medicine that described the glass-slaying phenomenon Oskar M that causes quite a stir in medical circles. Oscar’s poor mother, Agnes, blames herself (and her husband) for Oscar’s stunted growth. Agnes kills herself by gorging to death on fish in an attempt to kill her second foetus.

On the day war starts, on 1st September 1939, the magnificent Polish Cavalry pick blueberries and kiss their ladies before charging, sabre in hand, to their deaths onto the advancing German guns. Oscar relates one officer’s quixotic pep talk “Ye noble Poles on horseback, those are not tanks of steel, they are windmills or sheep. I bid you all kiss thy lady’s hand”. When the German army lays siege to the Danzig Post Office a postal clerk (Jan Bronski), Oscar and the janitor play cards as anti-tank shells fall about them. Jan (a man who is probably Oscar’s father) plays the ace of diamonds whilst laughing hysterically as flamethrowers arrive. He is led off to be executed still clutching the queen of hearts in his fist. Oscar ‘rescues’ a tin drum from the wreckage and declares it some justification for the whole escapade. On the day the German Sixth Army take Stalingrad Oscar finds a dead local scout master, in uniform, hanging from a beam in his greengrocer shop, with a poster of Lord Baden Powell on the wall and clutching a photograph of his favourite ex-scout now dead at the front. The authorities demand that Oscar be handed over to the Ministry of Public Health for their euthanasia programme (the form gets lost in the fog of war). Oscar joins a troupe of midget acrobats, to carry out propaganda and entertainment on behalf of Goebbels, and in front of delighted German audiences in Berlin, Metz, Rheims and Paris shatters with his voice Louis XV glassware, Louis XIV fruit bowls and Louis XVI goblets. The day before D-day Oscar is on the Normandy beaches chatting to a German gunner as nuns frolic in the water with black umbrellas as a gramophone plays “Sleigh bells in St. Petersburg”. His sleep is disturbed by the Canadians landing at 5am the next morning. Back in Danzig he becomes leader of a gang of father-less teenagers on the rampage as they pilfer and stockpile war medals and paratroopers’ knives. Throughout the war Oscar keeps up his drumming on a succession of tin drum’s dangling from his neck. Whilst the counter-offensive in the Ardennes is raging in late 1944 Oscar steals nativity cribs and figures across Danzig churches. He is taken into custody after sawing a baby Jesus from a plaster Mary, above her thigh. Alfred Matzerath, the German who has another claim to be Oscar’s father, is killed swallowing his Nazi badge on the day liberating Russian soldiers arrive into the Matzerath’s cellar and gang rape a sheltering neighbour. Oscar, present throughout, is more concerned with a trail of ants.

After the war, and the death of all his parents, Oscar wills himself (reluctantly) to enter the adult world by re-growing. He lives in Dusseldorf, becomes a tombstone engraver, a model at art school and a jazz drummer (both in a group and as a recording artist). He is convicted of the murder of Nurse Dorothea, one crime, as it happens, he did not commit. He connives to frame himself in a desire to be placed in the relative safety of a psychiatric hospital “my bed is a goal I’ve finally reached”. The novel ends with Oscar, in his mental hospital, drumming up this narrative for us with a short song that conjures up the figure of an evil witch called the Black Cook, from a children’s fairy tale, in his attempt to exorcise her and so banish her from his recurring dreams.

This is a story with a abnormal attitude to blame and guilt. Agnes wrongly blames his father for Oscar’s lack of growth. Oscar does not actually kill nurse Dorothea but he manipulates others into giving him the blame. He wrongly confesses to both of his fathers’ deaths. Oscar discovers after the war that he can transport people back to their childhood (pre-war) innocence by his drumming. He drums at a bar called The Onion Cellar that artificially stimulates the tears of middle class patrons by peeling onions so they can pretend they have come to terms with their Nazi past.

There is something of the fairy tale to the prose, the dryness, the anti-psychological, the anti-moralistic. Rape and murder and the movement of ants are described in the same manner, given the same weight of prose, as if they had identical moral weight. No ones actions are morally evaluated. Minor doings in Danzig prevail over the vast sweep of armies across a continent. Oscar impregnates his own step mother, who gives birth to his son/brother Kurt. Taboos of religion and incest and death are passed by unremarked upon. This is a novel written in a language where causation, probability, moral evaluation and motivation are of little or no value. And the tin drum? It is neither a metaphor nor a symbol nor psychologically significant, it is in the end merely a tin drum.

When caught causing trouble Oscar, given he is only three foot high, repeatedly gets released. He is regarded as a harmless innocent child, given his size, but is implicated in the cause of several deaths. Just because he looks like a child he is regarded as mentally undeveloped, but it is his moral development that has been stunted. Oscar is able to detach himself from the unfolding action: his drum and voice keep people at bay. He is a diminutive figure wandering in a moral vacuum, a Fool who can say what others dare not. Like Hitler, Oscar is an artist. But in all other respects he is an antidote to Aryans: part Polish, part German, seemingly disabled, an outsider, a left hander, a free thinker, unable to follow orders. These are the tall tales of an articulate person contained in a madhouse, but with his straightforward flat story he is impervious to influence, he is an entity that Nazism cannot corrupt. He avoids every issue raised by the Nazis and we acquiesce with him as he commits terrible acts, and are therefore made complicit with him. This protagonist is a fool at the carnival of absurdity. In a society that has gone mad, only an inmate at an asylum can guide us through.

Victor Klemperer made a study of language of the Third Reich. This German-Jewish scholar of language specialised, until the Nazi’s forced him out of his university position in 1935 and banned him from using the library in Dresden, in French eighteenth century literature (Voltaire, Montesquieu and Diderot). He published Lingua Tertii Imperii in 1947 as Hitler Squares and Goering Streets were being renamed. In it Klemperer considered the language that made a population servile and the success in moulding thought by linguistic and mental corruption. He noted how Nazism permeated the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures imposed by a million repetitions until they were taken on mechanically and unconsciously. “What a man says may be a pack of lies – but his true self is laid bare for all to see in the style of his utterances.” Authoritarianism contains the seeds of its own destruction and it is called irony. One of the casualties of the Holocaust was the German language itself: how could it be used for literary endeavour when it had been so contaminated? In a famous 1958 essay, In Bluebeard’s Castle, George Steiner asked whether “the German language had survived the Hitler era, whether words poisoned by Goebbels and used to regulate and justify Belsen could ever again serve the needs of the moral truth and poetic perception”. The Tin Drum, published a year later, is a surrealist farce, an earthy tour de force, told in deviant freewheeling prose, a boisterous, flamboyant burlesque, a dance of the macabre, a comedy where language surges. Can it not be proposed that Grass’ comic novel restored irony, and therefore humanity, to the German language?


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