The Tin Drum

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

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass Translated by Breon Mitchell Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 592 pp., $26

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.

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.

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.”

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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