Eight Days of Gdansk, October 31: Gdansk, Danzig, The Tin Drum and Günter Grass.


The Tin Drum is a novel about one man’s choice of fishing lures.

Well, not really, although reading Günter Grass’s masterpiece might well reshape an omnivore’s list of dining preferences. Food aside, for some observers The Tin Drum represents a post-war literary peak.

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass – the greatest novel of the 20th century, by Eileen Battersby (The Irish Times)

The Tin Drum combines history, horror story, burlesque cartoon and satiric fable with vibrant, subversive imagery. Stylistically it is light years removed from the stately narratives of Thomas Mann

Sanctuary, at least for some people, may best be found in an insane asylum. From his white-enamelled metal hospital bed, under the watchful, if bewildered eye of Bruno, his nurse, Oskar Matzerath sets out with the help of a family photograph album to tell not only his story but also that of his country.

Oskar, very much his own man despite his chosen lack of growth, elects to move between the first-person and third-person voice. Drumming is his way of detaching from his family and the events unfolding around him. He pulverises each new drum, replacements lasting mere days; such is the frenzy of the story unfolding; so oppressive is the reality he is intent on escaping.

When he says in the opening pages of this angry, swaggering and earthy tour de force: “I’d like to have the bed rails raised even higher to keep anyone from coming too close,” it is not that unexpected. Here is a postwar novel born of that war’s legacy. The Tin Drum broke all the rules and invented a few more. The polemic is there but, considering the boisterousness of the narrative, at times it is not that obvious. But not always; Oskar and his father stand outside the burning synagogue: “….civilians and men in uniforms were piling up books, sacral objects, and strange pieces of cloth”.

And …

The Tin Drum summarised the 20th century in three words, Darragh McManus (The Guardian)

Fifty years on, Günter Grass’s seminal work remains the defining novel of the 20th century, wrenching art and hope from ugliness and horror

Whether it’s the greatest is open to debate, but one could argue that Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum is the great novel of the 20th century. By that I mean it most completely defines the era in all its glories and catastrophes – the moods, atmospheres, manias, streams, currents, histories and under-histories.

First published 50 years ago this week (on 6 October 1959), it is, technically, an incredible piece of art, a melange of bildungsroman, memoir, allegory, grotesquerie and pure reverie. On a superficial level it tells the story of Oskar Matzerath: incarcerated maniac, self-created dwarf, paranoiac, possessor of supernatural gifts, vindictive genius, fallen angel, miniature tyrant, obsessive beater of the titular drum. Oskar is all of these things and none of them; the ultimate unreliable narrator.

The book charts his progress, and that of the independent port city of Danzig/Gdansk, and greater Germany, and the world as a whole. It is odd, profound, sprawling, poetic, often unnerving. But more than this, never have I read something that so exquisitely and lucidly captures the dazed, eerie strangeness of our misfortunate times …

Given the Eurocentric nature of my interests, it’s mystifying to me that I hadn’t read the novel previously. My friend Jon suggested it as an appropriate segue to visiting Gdansk, given that the former Danzig is the foundation for a trilogy of novels written by Grass — beginning with The Tin Drum.

As usual, Jon was right. The novel is unsettling and completely necessary. The author’s life is instructive, too. Grass died just three years ago, and he left behind a powerful and also cluttered legacy, primarily because he omitted an important thing or two from his personal narrative. The corrections began in 2007.

Gunter Grass admitted that in 1944 he had been drafted into the 10th SS tank division Frundsberg and that the aircraft auxiliary episode was one that had lasted only while he was a schoolboy. Naturally his involvement in an organisation infamous for its associations with deaths heads and murder caused a bit of a rumpus in Poland, a country regarded as the primary killing field of the Nazi machine. Local hero, Lech Wałęsa, called on Grass to surrender his honorary citizenship of Gdańsk, while some accused him of trying to hype up the publication of his autobiography, Peeling the Onion. While the belated revelation drew widespread shock and accusations of hypocrisy, following many years where he had criticised Germans for not taking full responsibility for their war-time actions, many high profile names such as the local Archbishop Michalik and novelist John Irving, sprang to his defence. Speaking of the guilt he had carried all his life, Grass claimed to never have fired a shot, adding that once he saw the brutality of war he even tried to infect himself with jaundice in an attempt to escape his military duty. He went as far as to write an open letter of explanation to the people of Gdansk and this appeared to have done the trick with the local mayor Pawel Adamowicz refusing to rescind Grass’ honorary citizenship while even the normally stubborn Wałęsa applauded Grass for coming clean and withdrew his previous objections.

Grass’s explanation in his own words is worth reading.

How I Spent the War, by Gunter Grass (The New Yorker)

In 1943, when I was a fifteen-year-old schoolboy in Danzig, I volunteered for active duty. When? Why? Since I do not know the exact date and cannot recall the by then unstable climate of the war, or list its hot spots from the Arctic to the Caucasus, all I can do for now is string together the circumstances that probably triggered and nourished my decision to enlist. No mitigating epithets allowed. What I did cannot be put down to youthful folly. No pressure from above. Nor did I feel the need to assuage a sense of guilt, at, say, doubting the Führer’s infallibility, with my zeal to volunteer.

Günter Grass was born into a stateless “free city” of Danzig stemming from the post-WWI reordering of maps, witnessed the rise of Nazism, participated in WWII, saw rise and fall of communism in Poland, and died only six months shy of Polish parliamentary elections in 2015 which brought the populist Law and Justice party to power.

His novel is incredible, my reading of it lamentably belated, and I’ll leave it at that.