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The Tin Drum

Marking the 50th anniversary of ‘The Tin Drum,’ a new English translation gives Günter Grass’s classic a fresh musicality.

By Jacob Silverman / October 28, 2009



In preparing his new translation of The Tin Drum, Breon Mitchell, along with about a dozen other translators, had the privilege of working directly with Günter Grass, touring Gdansk (previously Danzig), the setting for much of the novel, and questioning the author about nagging issues. The result – just in time for the book’s 50th anniversary this year – is an extraordinary new English translation that presents the text in all its musicality, ingenious wordplay, deft symbolism, and carefully metered rhythms.

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The translator’s afterword is also a helpful addition, providing insights into the translation process – while paying respect to the work of the novel’s original translator, Ralph Manheim – and delineating the extensive research and collaboration that went into reinvigorating an established classic of postwar literature.

“The Tin Drum” is a strange, capacious novel, an epic satire and farce, and a provincial, magical realist, picaresque tale. The book is the autobiography of Oskar Matzerath, who tells his life story from a German mental hospital in 1954. Having deliberately stunted his growth at the age of 3 and capable of shattering glass with his voice, Oskar is a force of anarchy, torn between the teachings of the mad faith healer Rasputin and the poet-prince Goethe, and between Satan and Jesus, both of whom Oskar impersonates.

He’s certainly a bit mad, even monstrous, which is why his peculiar vision of a monstrous era – 1930s and ’40s Germany – is an essential one.

Armed with the titular drum, Oskar, an “incorrigible aesthete” understood by no one but loved, at various times, by many, uses his instrument to drum up memories of his perfectly remembered life, beginning with his birth in 1924. It is through this compulsive devotion to rhythm that Oskar is able to produce his personal image of German history. And through his telling, we learn about, for example, the first days of World War II, when Oskar’s presumptive father reluctantly joined in the defense of the Danzig post office and became equal parts martyr and coward.

There are tales of Kashubian potato farmers – Kashubians being one of the many quasi-stateless European cultures trampled in the WWII maelstrom – and Nazis who blithely value animal rights more than human ones. There is a postwar German jazz club where patrons cut onions so as to force themselves to cry and reckon with the past. We travel, with Oskar, to Paris, Normandy, Dusseldorf, on refugee trains besieged by partisans, and to a mental hospital that proves to be a kind of sanctuary.

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