After World War II, as one can imagine, Germany was in something of a bind when it came to moving forward. What is the correct way to move forward after an all but global rebuttal to the government of Hitler’s Twelve Year Century? The correct answer is apparently some combination of ‘der Kahlschlag’ and ‘die Stunde Null’ which is fancy German talk for “What are you talking about, I just go here.”
A decade and a half passes in contrition and Wirtschaftswunder (Thank you, Marshall Plan) and just as everyone is starting to feel properly comforted by distance and luxury a snot-eating bastard by the name of Günter Grass publishes The Tin Drum, a novel about life in Nazi Germany from the perspective of hunchbacked dwarf named Oskar who narrates the book from inside of a mental asylum. (It’s sentences like that one that makes reading fiction such a goddamn pleasure.) This upset no shortage of people who would mount dozens of lawsuits to try and get the book banned because there seemed a very real concern that the book would, ‘endanger, if not destroy, the soul and mind.’
Obviously, since I’m reading this now we can all safely conclude that the powers that be recognized nonsense as such and Grass made a bunch of money and wrote a bunch more internationally successful books until his death in 2015.
Which is weird because up until a month ago I had no idea who he was. In fact, the only reason I have any of this knowledge is because I stumbled upon a sleek Everyman’s Library copy of this book at my local Half Price Books and make a point to buy every Everyman’s Library book I can find as part of my literary apocalypse preparation kit.
And so I got to meet Oskar, a boy who at the age of three receives his first tin drum and throws himself down the stairs at the age of three to stop growing. He can also use his voice to shatter glass, including carving out specific shapes from across the street, which is also neat. This is possibly the greatest premise for breaking into the heart of era fogged over by horror. What better insurgent than a perpetual child, a boy who even in his twenties feigns mental handicap, holds hands with ‘proper’ adults while walking, and relentlessly playing a tin drum? I can think of none. He is unseen, free to record the world in his strange, banal, and selfish detail.
This is such a strange book. It crackles with the same creative force as Rushdie’s Midnight Children and to my mind pairs rather well with it, each book’s main character exists in the throes of a history that they had no part in creating, see the worst humanity has to offer, all in the wrapping of a wonderfully perfect magical realism.
It should be mentioned that this book contains a lot of sex. That is perhaps the most perfect thing about it. Not in that it is sex, but in the perfect way that Grass hides it behind euphemism with a skill I have literally never read before in my life. I pay a special note to this because I have always found referring to sexual organs in literature to be rather jarring, they are either too colloquial or too medical and if the author’s style doesn’t drift enough one way or the other the entire scene annoy me.
Obviously, if the sex bothers you there is still plenty in this book for you. Unless there isn’t, that happens sometimes, but The Tim Drum is a book of so many bizarre literary dimensions that I’m not sure I’ll be able to help myself in recommending to everyone I meet, if only to see their reaction.
“Today I know that all things are watching, that nothing goes unseen, that even wallpaper has a better memory than human beings.” ― Günter Grass, The Tin Drum