Gunter Grass is definitely a novelist I’d heard of – and I was quite excited when I picked this up and read the blurb – “On his third birthday Oskar decides to stop growing. Haunted by the deaths of his parents and wielding his tin drum Oskar recounts the events of his extraordinary life; from the long nightmare of the Nazi era to his anarchic adventures in post-war Germany” – from which I took it to be a story about a boy taken to a concentration camp where his parents died and after being freed/escaping has various adventures in the wake of the fall of the Nazi party. This was not the case. While I would agree with “extraordinary life” and “anarchic adventures” (and most definite “wielding his tin drum”) I would argue that the rest is misleading.
Firstly, I seriously underestimated the magic realism of this book: Oskar is not (as I thought) a boy so traumatised by the horrors of the war that he regresses mentally; instead he is a hyper conscious creature – demonstrating a sense of self and awareness of being prenatally and readily possessed with an adult’s intelligence from birth (equally, he recounts his story from a mental institution – so who knows whether that’s a lie) who decides to stop growing at the age of three when he overhears his father say that he will take over the family shop when he grows up (solution: never grow up). Oskar’s childhood is dominated by his attachment to a series of tin drums, on which he drums constantly (this I found very annoying). He also possesses a piercing shriek, which allows him to “singshatter” glass (which I think at one point he uses to destroy an enemy plane but for the most part he uses it to get what he wants or encourage innocent shoppers to steal from shops). For a while, after a failed attempt at schooling (he refuses to relinquish his drum in the classroom), he feigns ignorance and lack of intelligence, self educating himself by reading, by turns, about Goethe and Rasputin. While Oskar’s parents weren’t exactly likeable characters (he possesses two “presumptive fathers” – his mother’s husband, and her first cousin, with whom she has an ongoing love affair – both of whom are rather wet) Oskar himself was (I thought) such a brat that I couldn’t empathise with any of them, so instead spent the novel (all 563 pages of it) looking on in bemusement and scepticism. While the narrator of the last book I read (the Go Between) reported naively through his childish eyes, Oskar holds no disillusions about the realities of life: so, while there is an obvious Nazi presence for a good chunk of the book (most explicitly because presumptive father #1 joins the party), we don’t see how it affects the world of the novel covertly through a child’s eyes, rather it is largely omitted because Oskar doesn’t both to talk about things that don’t concern him.
Although I can clearly see the merits of this book – the story is fantastical and the plot is definitely varied, it is intelligently written (/translated) and amusing in places – once again my lack of connection with (perhaps more accurate to say dislike of) the main character (or any character) did detract from my enjoyment and it did become an uphill struggle to get through it all. Not only does Oskar prove to be selfish, he displays a tendency to be completely evil (approaching Maria, his pregnant girlfriend/step mother – yes really – the former came first – with a pair of scissors to attempt to abort his/his father’s baby). I wouldn’t say I enjoyed this book but I am glad that I read it – so I’m not completely sure how that reflects on it as a recommendation but I can definitely see why it’s held in high regard.