In the very first chapter of Nobel laureate Gunter Grass' incredible novel 'The Tin Drum', I was reminded of
Salman Rushdie's Midnight Children(MC) because of the narrator Oscar's conversational tone of narrative - same as that of Saleem Shinai of MC. Once MC was in my mind couldn't help locating similarities - both narrators start their stories with the first meeting of their maternal grandparents, both like talking about sex, both of them feel need to hide from the world (Oskar in grandmother's skirts, Shinai in laundry box) etc. Still, there are enough differences, MC is more magical realism, 'The Tin Drum' is more about the unreliable narrator
Did I already mentioned 'unreliable narrator'? Yes, I did. In fact, tell me, why would you consider a narrator unreliable? Maybe he is out of mind or delusional, or he is a habitual liar, or he is full of inferiority or superiority complexes, or he had lied to you before, or he is full of guilt. Oscar fulfills all these conditions. 'The Tin Drum' begins with lines:
"GRANTED: I AM an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight."
Günter Grass (Tin Drum)
He has lied to his family half his life. He himself corrects lies he has told you half a book before - putting an asterisk on everything he says. He tells you he deliberately stopped growing - and faked an accident to provide the world reason for that. The fact that a lot of information comes from his drum is not so much satisfying either. He is using both first-person pronouns and his name to talk about himself - at times in the same sentence.
Hence you must take everything he says with a pinch, correction a bowl full of salt. It is funny to see how whenever you find a reason to doubt a declaration he wants to maintain, he would run to explanations - as if he was telling you his story face-to-face and had seen you rise your eye-brow in doubt.
His schizophrenia, self-obsession, and complexes though won't stop him from being witty - every page of 'The Tin Drum' has some really witty play of words on it. At times, it gets a bit trying but Oscar is too busy showing off to care about your time. But really you don't need to trouble yourself with lie-detector tests on every sentence - just sit back and enjoy. The correct way of reading his story is not to look for what really happened, but rather to marvel at what he is saying.
War and War guilt
"I look for the land of the Poles that is lost to the Germans, for the moment at least. Nowadays the Germans have started searching for Poland with credits, Leicas, and compasses, with radar, divining rods, delegations, and moth-eaten provincial students' associations in costume. Some carry Chopin in their hearts, others thoughts of revenge. Condemning the first four partitions of Poland, they are busily planning a fifth; in the meantime flying to Warsaw via Air France in order to deposit, with appropriate remorse, a wreath on the spot that was once the ghetto. One of these days they will go searching for Poland with rockets . I meanwhile, conjure up Poland on my drum. And this is what I drum : Poland's lost, but not forever, all's lost, but not forever, Poland's not lost forever."
Günter Grass (Tin Drum)
War, as such, doesn't show up much in 'The Tin Drum' except a few chapters the novel contains no soldiers and guns. I don't think concentration camps were mentioned for even once.
There are some allegorical elements - Oscar's mother (the source of harmony in his world) dies at onset of war, Oscar's polish uncle (whom he claims his biological father) dies when Poland falls to Russians and his German father dies with fall of Germany trying to swallow Nazi party pin. War time madness mostly shows up in sexual madness.
Oscar's is attracted alternatively to Rasputin and Goethe in R-G-R-G sequence which (I guess) seems to show Germany's WWI-peace-WWII-peace sequence.
During the war, Oscar gain popularity as an artist who could break glasses through his voice (showing how much Germans loved being shouted at) while after war it is his drumming (the creative art) that gets prominence.
"An entire credulous nation believed, there's faith for you, in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really the gas man."
Günter Grass (Tin Drum)
However this book uses war references in a different context just as some fiction books refers to classics. Oskar is a dwarf with a glass-breaking voice - and in one scene is seen shouting at enchanted people (can you imagine some dwarf with a voice at same time - loud, destructive and seductive?).
His favorite toy is Tin Drum - a common sight in war times, for armies marched on sound of drums. His mother was a nurse and he too has a fetish for nurses, especially red cross nurses; another common sight in WWII. He may as well have served as war Mascot. Like Oscar's drumming, the novel itself could have been a more enchanting for people who actually have lived through the war - unlike me who has to google out everything.
Oscar doesn't much like Hitler, but he has a love-hate relationship with Jesus (Hitler's title 'Fuhrer' literally means guardian; so does the word 'Christ') - depending upon his mood; he doesn't believe in Jesus, believes in Jesus, is a messenger of Jesus, is Jesus himself, is father of Jesus etc. In another scene our dwarf hero is seen leading his street gangs to invade church (Hitler brought down synagogues).
The later half of book is full of symbols of war guilt. Besides German father's death in trying to swallow Nazi pin, we have Oscar's fall in a open grave (mirroring German fall at end of war) and working as grave stone architect (too many dead in war) but no symbol is as prominent as hunchback he develops when he chose to grow-up (just a little) at the end of war. He work as model for painters often portrayed entirely in black with a increasingly larger hunchback while painters completely ignored his blue eyes ( comment on complete negative portrayal of Germany after war?). Onion cellar club showed how having lived through war, people were so full of remorse, they were out of tears and needed to peel onions to be able to weep.
An aggressive indifference
The clash between art and war is a constant theme:
"They are coming," he whispered. "They will take over the meadows where we pitch our tents. They will organize torch light parades. They will build rostrums and fill them, and down from the rostrums they will preach our destruction . Take care, young man. Always take care to be sitting on the rostrum and never to be standing out in front of it."
Günter Grass (Tin Drum)
Beethoven's big painting in Oscar's house has to give up its supreme position when Oscar's parents had to put in Hitler's painting. Beethoven was an artist and was deaf - deaf to the Hitler shouting in front of him! That pretty much sums Oscar's attitude towards war. He is indifferent to what happens around him, somewhat like Albert Campus and his Stranger - but in Oscar this indifference is too aggressive, almost insane. He refused to grow up because he thought grownups were evil and he is constantly running away from world, looking for solitude - in grandma's skirts, under the table on which his three parents are playing cards on or inside some almirah. When there is firing going outside, Oskar spends his time playing cards inside. He risks his claimed biological father's life for a new drum - repeatedly. He betrays both his fathers and his street-gang-followers to save himself. When his whole family is facing a life threat, he is too busy watching a trail of ants on ground.
This indifference attracts an equal indifference from us. It is really difficult to sympathetic with this guy. At times he seems to be intentionally trying to make it difficult for us to relate to him - this book can be a thousand things, but it is definitively not a melodrama.
On size of book
You may think that with over 550 pages or this long review, 'The Tin Drum' is a long book - do not be deluded by that; through its witty pose, it becomes a much, much, much longer book, almost Dickens long. Like Dickens, Grass seemed to have perfected each chapter separately with too much detail and wit, rather than trying to keep a natural flow which makes you go to next chapter as soon as you finish one.