Anthony Burgess once wrote that in The Tin Drum, Gunter Grass, 'keeps piling more of the same mash onto our plates.' 'I felt full,' says Burgess, 'About a third of the way through'. Having finished this howling, heavy and disquieting novel, I also feel full: so full that I'm forced to write some of it down.
The Tin Drum is the story of Oskar Matzerath Bronski, born, like Grass, in the former free state of Danzig, now Gdansk, Poland. Oskar, who narrates his own story from behind the barred bed of a mental hospital, so dubs himself because he never discovers whether his father is his mother's husband , Matzerath, or her cowardly lover, Jan Bronski – although given that this sinister dwarf is responsible for the deaths of both his 'fathers', we might find ourselves thinking that he feels no bond to either.
Oskar is an outrage – a thoroughly unpleasant being who spends the first seventeen years of his life as a three year old in all outward appearance, jarring uncomfortably with his cold, cynical narrative voice. Above his cradle at the moment of his birth, his father promises that when he grows up he will take over the grocery store, and his mother, that she will buy her new son a tin drum when he reaches his third birthday. Oskar is born fully aware, 'one of those clair-audient infants whose mental development is completed at birth', and what he is aware of is that he has no interest in his father's grocery store. To avoid this, he makes the conscious decision to finish growing as soon as he receives his drum. Accordingly, on his third birthday, Oskar receives a red and white tin drum, and arranges for himself a plunge down the cellar stairs, to provide to the adults a satisfactory explanation for his cessation of development.
And so, instead of growing, Oskar drums. When anyone attempts to separate Oskar from his cherished instrument, he utilizes his second musical skill, a glass-cutting scream. An attempt to enroll him in primary school is aborted when his teacher makes the attempt and Oskar breaks all of the first floor windows. His drum returned to him, Oskar drums through the 1930s, drums through Kristallnacht, all the way into the German invasion and the Second World War. Oskar's drum is his elixir – for it is his drumming which keeps him in the state of a three year old, allowing him to maintain his chosen infantile and helpless state.
The story of Oskar is, in many ways, a fabulized autobiography of an artist living through some of the most horrific events of the twentieth century. His warped infantilism is a perverted image of the curse/blessing of the artist, who can transform what he observes, but must observe in order to transform, and if he observes, what action can he take? What good artistic transformation when confronted with raw brutality? Thus disempowered, the artist is but a child – a dreadful monster of a Christ-like child. This vertiginous passivity, not just of the dreamer-artist, but of all those forced to observe horror and bear the guilt of non-action, culminates in the unsettling image of the speaker luxuriating behind the bars of a psychiatric cot, having abdicated all power and autonomy which would identify him as human.
Yet art is far from being powerless; indeed, just like Oskar, who at times fancies himself a fair copy of Christ (albeit a better drummer) and at others a dwarfish Satan, art is both damnation and salvation. In one of the few uplifting scenes of the book, Oskar establishes himself underneath the rostrum at a Nazi propaganda rally, and plunges the musicians into confusion by beating his toy drum, perverting the Nazi marches with the Vienna and Danube waltzes, until the trumpets 'see the light' and join in the song, fracturing the propaganda machine with classical harmonies, so that the crowd swings away to do the Charleston down the Hindenburg Alley. Yet while he may use his drum for the cause of freedom; he uses his voice like a petty criminal, carving holes in shop windows to tempt innocent bystanders into thievery. Like his clown-master Bebra, who becomes an official for Goebbels, Oskar, the narcissistic child, doesn't appear to hold political convictions, or, indeed, hold an interest in anything taking place outside his sphere of personal concern. Accompanying Bebra and his acrobatic troupe to occupied France, he is also happy to put his glass-breaking voice to use destroying priceless French artefacts for the amusement of the more artistically discerning Nazi soldiers.
This segment of the novel, the peak of the Second World War, is arguably the happiest we see Oskar, given that he has his first fully consummated love affair with the alluring somnambulist dwarf Roswitha. The political situation is hardly in the background, it is in the foreground of the action, for the job of Bebra's troupe is to boost morale of the German troops for the final victory. Yet it is not in the foreground of Oskar's narration. He enjoys the sites of Paris, and falls in love. On the beaches of Normandy, the troupe picnic on absurdly luxurious food atop a concrete bunker by the name of Dora Seven. Whilst Soviet caviar, Dutch chocolate and French plum jam are being consumed, five shell-collecting nuns carrying umbrellas are spotted and then picked off with machine guns with an astonishing rapidity and queer absence of sound, that evokes nothing so much as Lewis Carroll's oysters being consumed by the walrus and the carpenter.
Yet to understand Grass's portryal of the gunning of the nuns, and Oskar's reaction to it, as callous would be to fundamentally misunderstand the novel, as it would be to assume that the deaths of his fathers means nothing to him. Although the event, the gunning of five women on a beach, receives little emotional response, the weight it carries is so deep that it warps the pattern of narration itself, echoing throughout the novel and demanding repetition long after it has occurred. In Dusseldorf, years after the war has ended, Oskar meets Lankes, the corporal who carried out the order to fire. When the two take a holiday, they find themselves back on the beach in Normandy, where the youngest of the nun's, Sister Agneta, miraculously appears again, picking shells for her kindergarten. She is invited inside Dora Seven, where she is sexually assaulted by Corporal Lankes. The last we see of Sister Agneta is of her swimming out into the Atlantic, from where, we imagine, she cannot return. Again she is killed, although the means have become more intimate. Events of horror, when they happen, are not received or comprehended, yet they are absorbed by the mind of our narrator, creating a kind of cyclical purgatory bringing the speaker, and reader, obsessively back to what appears to have been left behind.
Horrific events then, while not overtly marked or lamented, slip so deep as to endanger the linear pattern of the narrative, and thus, we may understand, the sanity and growth of the narrator himself. There are moments in the novel when this impact can be discovered in the very pattern of the prose. The ironically entitled chapter, 'Faith, Hope, and Love' is the only chapter which deals overtly with the Holocaust. It tells the story of Oskar's first supplier of drums, the toyshop owner Sigismund Markus, whose shop is raided during Kristallnacht, leading him to suicide. This chapter is unusually emotional, grief is explicit, as Oskar, in need as he is for his little red and white drums, is touched by Markus' death in a way that he is not by any of the other bizarre deaths we encounter in the novel. Yet it is also a chapter which cannot seem to get beyond its beginning. The first sentence is unremarkable:
There was once a musician, his name was Meyn and he played the trumpet too beautifully for words.
But the last paragraph begins again in broken prose, a series of sutured starts without ends:
There was once a drummer, his name was Oskar, and he needed the toy merchant.
There was once a musician, whose name was Meyn, and he did in four cats with a fire poker.
There was once a drummer, whose name was Oskar, and they took away his toy merchant.
There was once a toy merchant, his name was Markus, and he took all the toys in the world away with him out of this world.
This is a chapter about raided innocence, and the very prose itself reflect Oskar's perversely extended childhood, becoming, in containing such events, obsessive, repetitive, and unable to develop.
Returning to the scene on the Normandy beaches, we find that it has not simply a forward but also a backward significance, for Sister Agneta's presumed death recalls the death of Oskar's mother, Agnes, who, died, not in the sea, but on of it. After viewing a horse's head taken from the sea, crawling with eels which her husband bakes for Easter dinner, the pitch of Agnes' repulsion is so deep that it cannot be encompassed and is forced to spin over into its opposite. Developing a terrible craving, Agnes dies from eating all the fish she can, one of the most disturbing death scenes of the novel. Since Oskar's mother met her husband while serving in a hospital during the first world war, as Sister Agnes, the two death scenes seem not simply to echo but to repeat each other, particularly as both women are drawn, in a violent rage of nonsensicality, towards the agent of their deaths, Agnes before she expires and Sister Agneta after it. Furthermore Oskar, trapped as he is as an Oedipal child, has a lifelong obsession with nurses, and it eventually transpires that the reason he is in the psychiatric hospital is that he has been charged with the murder of another Sister, this time Dorothea. Death, guilt, and complicity stumble blindly through the novel, hardly able to distinguish themselves from each other.
Umbrella carrying nuns picked off with machine guns is one of the few direct images of war we have, ridiculous and nearly humourous as it is, and yet also astoundingly personal, both recalling and dictating events in Oskar's life. That the image has penetrated so deeply into the psyche of the speaker (and thus of the reader) is a fact crucial for understanding the book itself, for it is the emotional silence about the events of war, and the frenzied, hallucinogenic quality of personal recollections touched by them, which make this such a powerful political novel. This is what I imagine it must be like for the trauma patient, unable to reach, or understand the events of the trauma, but experiencing everything else distorted by what is not recalled. The political and the psychological, in the novel, are inextricable: this is an atrocious, humourous tale about Nazi and Post-Nazi Germany, but also a savage howl of pain at the damage we have done to ourselves.
Grass' attitude to this howl, to this novel he is writing, is ambivalent, and symbolised ambivalently. On one level it is Oskar's glass-breaking voice, violent, narcissistic and useless. Why else would Oskar condemn himself to imprisonment for a crime he didn't commit? For it turns out that he didn't murder Sister Dorothea, his only crime being to stumble accidentally on a piece of her corpse (her index finger) and keep it in a glass jar. Yet another image of the violence of the artist: to display pieces of the corpse, as the writer displays the victims he is using in his tale, is a crime akin to the murder itself and also demands its punishment. Yet the howl, the writing, is also Oskar's wordless, haunted drumming, which can transform an adult to a child and which obsessively recalls, revisits, grieves, until a tale has been told. It is in this sense, finally, that the novel becomes art as salvation, paradoxically, allowing both narrator and author to transform the untransformable, write a novel about the unspeakable, and consider leaving the psychiatric hospital and returning to the world.