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By Grass, Gunter
Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim
New York: Vintage Books, 1972
628 pages

Bob Corbett
June 2015

I find this to be a very difficult novel to describe or to write about. It is sort of the story of Oscar Matzerath, narrated by him while in a mental institution in Germany in 1954. He was born 1924, thus is just 30 years old. However, there is virtually nothing that we could call “normal” about Oscar.

Nor does author Gunter Grass want there to be. The novel has much of the form of the South American novels of magical realism. In Oscar’s narrations he just treats many situations of impossibility as though they were ordinary everyday events. One of his earliest claims which lets the reader know this will be a very different sort of story is that Oscar decided at birth, that he would not grow to be over three foot tall!

Further, he claims to have been aware that he would be given a tin drum for his third birthday and that would be a central event in his life. And, according to the text, is pretty much what happens.

Oscar does get his drum on his third birthday, and he quickly learns to play it and does so with such vehemence and constancy that he goes through drum after drum after drum for most of his life.

When he is born his family is living in Dansk in Poland (today’s Danzig, Germany) 1924, during the years between the two world wars. In the main this is sort of a story of World War II from the standpoint of one telling a story in the model of magical realism, and Oscar is the person who has several unearthly abilities. Not only does he control his own growth, not allowing himself to exceed 3 foot tall for much of his life, but he is also born with full faculties of thought, memory, speech and powers to act in the world not normally a part of any infant or young child’s world.

He even has one very special power that allows him to control many of his own wishes. He has a voice which he can send out and break glass anywhere he chooses, even long distances across the city of Dansk (later called Danzig,) then later he lives in Dusseldorf.)

During the period of the novel he is in a mental institution in Dusseldorf, seemingly telling this story to his attendant/nurse/therapist. His story is his version not only of his very strange life, but of the situation of growing into and living through and after World War II.

What is simply fascinating about the novel is nothing about the actual history of World War II. There is very little of historical interest concerning the war. Rather, his dark and crazed tale gives one the everyday feel of dislocation, hopelessness, fear, even terror of living and trying to stay alive within that impossible world.

The novel puts demands upon the reader. One quickly learns this will not be a “story” in any normal sense, nor is the reader to believe the events of the novel really happened in Oscar’s life. Rather, the reader is expected to go with the flow and “sense” that the events of Oscar’s life as he details them can be translated, somehow, into a “feeling tone” of what it was like to live in and through World War II, particularly as a non-combatant, but as a citizen living inside the war, trying to survive, trying to have a life, trying just to continue existing.

Overall I think Gunter Grass is very successful. One simply must suspend disbelief and embrace the literally “incredible” story of Oscar’s life and the events he lived through from his birth until the end of the war, and then, even after, especially in the last days of the early 1950s when he is in a mental institution.

The “events” are not the events of World War II. Rather, they are the magical happenings in the life of Oscar who is living in and through the war and managing, somehow, to survive and managing, somehow, to give meaning to his own life, yet not able to do that within what we would normally call “the real everyday life” that one lives.

The novel worked magically for me. Gunter Grass grabbed my attention from the outset and I decided I had to just enter into Oscar account and accept it though it were a normal diary or life story of a real person. I somehow recognized, simultaneously, that I obviously couldn’t take these events as “real” in the normal and everyday sense of the term “real,” but that were I to enter into Oscar’s account, accept it as though it were real, then I could have a much better sense of experiencing the “sense and meaning” of World War II for those who lived inside it, but in some sense, not “of” it.

The novel is, indeed, a great challenge, but I think it is well worth a careful read, but one must be willing to let author Grass lead and just accept that world as a particular tone-poem of the horrors of living in and through World War II in Germany.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett