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Günter Grass: Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum)

One of the finest novels to come out of Germany, this book starts off well and only gets better. It begins with Anna Bronski, in a potato field, hiding an arsonist, Joseph Koljaiczek, under her myriad skirts, as the police interview her about the arsonist. She protects him and, then when they have departed, hurries back home with him and marries him. Nine months later, she gives birth to a daughter, Agnes. Joseph is eventually recognised and runs away, disappearing into a river. His body is never found. However, Anna marries his brother, who drinks away their money. However, by the time he dies of the flu, she has opened and is running a successful grocery shop. Agnes grows up and gets married and has a son, Oskar. The book is Oskar’s memoirs.

Oskar makes a decision, when three years old, not to grow up, to avoid becoming either a politician or a grocer. He engineers this by making himself fall down the cellar steps, with the help of his toy tin drum. To his father’s distress, he becomes very attached to the drum and plays it constantly. When anyone tries to take the drum, he emits an ear-piercing scream. Oskar and his drum come to symbolise the protest against the bourgeois attitudes and conservatism of his family and neighbours, whose attitudes lead to the rise of Nazism. The story is set in Danzig (now Gdańsk) and we follow the rise of the Nazis in that town. Oskar’s father joins the Nazis and one of his treats for his family is to take them to see a synagogue being burned down. Oskar continues to see the rise of the Nazis, with attacks on Jews and on Poles. Oskar spends much of the war in Danzig but then joins up with a troop of midgets and they tour France and Belgium After the war, they flee Poland and go to Düsseldorf. All the time we see the world through the eyes of the child-man, Oskar. Oskar is no saint but he has a certain strength of character and he is, above all, a survivor, while all around Europe is going to hell.

This novel has rightly been hailed as one of the greatest post-war works of literature. It exposes Nazism in all its wickedness and shows the horrors that took place in Europe, often with the complicity of the local bourgeoisie. This could, of course, ended up being worthwhile but boring, but Grass’ skill is showing it to us through the eyes of Oskar and giving us wonderful scenes, from the opening scene up Anna’s skirts to Oskar’s travels through war-torn Europe. If you read no other German novel, read this one. And see the film.

Publishing history

First published 1959 by Luchterhand
First English translation 1962 by Secker & Warburg