Oskar Matzerath is no ordinary three-year-old.
He’s not even three years old.
Oskar decided, in fact, to remain three years old no matter how much time went by—all because #adulting held so little appeal.
But wait—there’s more.
Oskar has this drum, this tin drum, a drum he’s obsessed with to the point of violence and betrayal. Also, his scream can shatter glass. So Oskar drums and screams his way around his native Danzig, like a three-year-old but not as a three-year-old, while the Nazi Party gains power over in Germany and begins its march toward Poland.
When he finally decides to grow up a little (mentally and physically) after the war ends, Oskar:
- works a series of random jobs (gang leader, tombstone engraver, nude model, and jazz band drummer, to name a few)
- is accused of murdering his neighbor, and
- winds up in an insane asylum.
His only regret is that he’s innocent.
This is a nasty piece of literature narrated by a nasty piece of work. Oskar is a lying, thieving, whining, bragging, manipulating sociopath. He hits pregnant women and kicks dogs. He has a God (or, more accurately, a Jesus) complex. Worst of all, he regularly refers to himself in the third person.
And yet, despite my generalized disgust for The Tin Drum, there is one contextual detail I find endlessly intriguing. Günter Grass, like Oskar, grew up in the Free City of Danzig (now called Gdańsk) and moved from Poland to Germany after the war. With The Tin Drum, published in 1959, Grass hoped to force a post-war Germany to confront its past—military members and civilians alike. What Grass didn’t mention until 2006—almost 50 years later—was that, at 17, he himself was a member of the Waffen-SS and trained as a tank gunner.
Accused of hypocrisy for holding himself up as a “moral authority, [and] a rather smug one,” Grass nevertheless felt the time had come to confront his own past. Shmoop, always spot-on, sums up the controversy like this:
What do you think? Did Grass earn a ton of money and a Nobel Prize by claiming a moral high ground he really didn’t deserve? Or did having to confront his own participation in the war give him the right to demand that others confront theirs?
If you like unreliable narrators, demon children, historical themes, and magical realism, you might enjoy The Tin Drum. Just know that the longer you spend with it, the dirtier your hands will get.
Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?
Audiobook was probably the wrong format for this novel. I’ll have to get back to you on this when my ears stop ringing from all the moaning, wailing, screaming, and sneering.
Also the criminal third person.
When Satan’s not in the mood, virtue triumphs. Hasn’t even Satan a right not to be in the mood once in a while?
Today I know that all things are watching, that nothing goes unseen, that even wallpaper has a better memory than human beings.
Boredom may well be the very essence of evil.