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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.

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Oskar is a fine chronicler of his era because he simply does not belong; his very rejection of it is embodied in his refusal to grow and in his decision to lead a gang of youths who fight against “parents and all grownups, regardless of what they may be for or against.”

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The novel is gilded with German folk tales, and one of the triumphs of Mitchell’s translation is his attention to local culture and history, although the book’s glossary could be twice as long. As noted in the afterword, the initial English translation of “The Tin Drum” referred to the Black Cook, a malevolent folk song character that stalks Oskar throughout the novel, as a “witch, black as pitch.” In a book in which references build upon one another to create a reservoir of interlocking themes, in which characters are sometimes more important dead than they are alive (and there are many deaths, many funerals), reducing the “Black Cook” to an anonymous witch is like removing a notable supporting character. Such inaccuracies show why Grass, a Nobel Prize winner, lobbied for more than 30 years for this new translation.

Half a century after its debut, “The Tin Drum” remains a unique, irreverent exploration of a society deranged, crumbling – Oskar compares Germans’ adherence to Hitler to  believing in  Santa Claus – a Santa Claus armed with poison gas. Scandalous and scatological in its time, the book established the author as one of his country’s preeminent moral authorities, warning, in the voice of Oskar, against the “ignorance that was just then coming into fashion.” It’s inexcusable that Grass became party to this ignorance, waiting until 2006 to reveal that he joined the Waffen-SS in 1944. But his personal failing doesn’t diminish the scope and character of this novel, whose influence should be enduring.

Through its linguistic complexity, its use of fabulist tropes, and its daring choice to invest an absurd, amoral character with equal parts monstrosity and artistry – e.g., Oskar’s expert ability to “singshatter” glass is juxtaposed against Kristallnacht – Grass’s novel earns its stature. Consequently, when Bebra, leader of a freakish circus troupe that Oskar joins, says that a lonely German soldier, ornamenting pillboxes on the French Atlantic coast, has “given our century its name,” the fortification-cum-artwork’s title – “MYSTICAL, BARBARIC, BORED” – resonates hauntingly. It is, like the novel that contains it, oblique, evocative, and epigrammatic, meaning, if nothing else, that to parse sense from the 20th century’s tangled horrors will take great, troubling art – works like this one.

Jacob Silverman is a Los Angeles-based writer and a contributing online editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review.

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