Highlights on almost every page.
Book One ended with Kristallnacht and Book Two starts with the Siege of the Polish Post Office, one of the first battles in the Nazi invasion of Poland. It ends with the Russian Invasion and the flight to the West. In this section The Tin Drum could so easily have become another historical novel, charting the events of World War II. Yet for the most part we don’t really know where we are in the course of the war because Oskar landmarks only those events that directly impact on him. (Kristallnacht = the loss of his toy merchant, Markus; the Siege of the Polish Post Office = the loss of his “father”, Jan Bronski; the Russian Invasion = the loss of his “presumptive” father, Matzerath).
We know Oskar is strange but why is he in such a rush to pile the guilt upon himself for the deaths of both Bronski and Matzerath? It’s not as though he hasn’t got other things to feel sorry for. His criminal activity as leader of the Dusters, his desecration of the Church of the Sacred Heart, his adulterous affair with Frau Greff. Which brings me to the really distasteful aspects of Oskar’s adolescence. The disgusting sexual imagery started in Book One – those eels, you know. Once read, never forgotten! Oskar’s sexual awakening is no less uncomfortable. Fizz Powder – Oskar’s absolute conviction of Maria’s ecstasy as he mixes his saliva with the fizz powder (kali?) in the palm of her hand. The sexual metaphor unmistakeable but should we believe this or even the details of his affair with Frau Greff? Is it simply wishful thinking and if so, is the logical conclusion that the whole story is simply the delusion of a madman?
In which case, it becomes clear that Oskar’s opinion of Matzerath is jaundiced. Personally I find Matzerath a sympathetic kind of fellow – genial and domesticated, happiest when in the kitchen cooking the Sunday roast. A member of the Nazi party, it is true, but – and I’m not making excuses for him here – he’s not a heart-and-soul member, is he? He continues his association with Jan Bronski despite his nationality (and the affair with his wife) and he refuses to hand Oskar over to the health authorities for treatment/extermination? Compare Matzerath to the loathsome Lobsack or even Herzog, who well knows that the nuns on the beach are simply collecting food. But he still gives the order to shoot.
If there’s one chapter in The Tin Drum that is a must-read, it’s the chapter Inspecting Concrete – or Mystical, Barbaric, Bored. Its significance flagmarked in multiple ways – placed halfway through Book Two and thus, halfway through the whole novel – a pivotal scene. Oskar has at this point joined a troupe of dwarves and has travelled to the Atlantic Wall to entertain the forces awaiting the allied invasion. Most of the chapter is written as a play – the change of narrative voice (a welcome change for those irritated by Oskar) calling out for attention.. The dialogue, dripping with satire, leaves authorial intent in no doubt. It’s Grass’s commentary on the absurdity of the Thousand Year Reich, the suffocation of true artistry and the barbarity. The culmination of the scene, the idiotic order and the subservient obedience demonstrated in executing it, captures the whole culpability of the Nazi era.