Book Review: The Tin Drum

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  December 15, 2009

For many, of course, the detail that counts is Grass's (involuntary) membership in Hitler's SS and his failure to tell us about that "crime" for more than 60 years while continuing in his self-appointed role as post-war Germany's moral conscience. He revealed the truth, or at least the facts, in his 2006 memoir Peeling the Onion, and if that title didn't undermine your confidence in your ability to see into the heart of another individual, now there's a reminder in Oskar's narration of The Tin Drum. Oskar's father is German Protestant Alfred Matzerath — or it could have been Polish Catholic Jan Bronski. Oskar's maternal grandfather, arsonist Joseph Koljaiczek, drowned while trying to escape his pursuers — that is, if he didn't somehow escape and wind up on a Greek tanker, or in Sweden, or, well, there were eyewitnesses who claimed they saw him in Buffalo, USA, as Joe Colchic, founder of fire-insurance companies.

Oskar is so scrupulous about giving us alternatives that it's easy to take him at his word when he doesn't. The key event of The Tin Drum is his decision to stop growing, and, on his third birthday, to throw himself down his family's cellar stairs so that everyone will think the "accident" has stunted his growth. No hint from Oskar that perhaps it was an accident. And even if the black Rottweiler Lux did sniff out the severed ring finger of the murdered Sister Dorothea, that doesn't mean Oskar ever saw the woman he obsessed over face to face — what he told his friend Vittlar about Dorothea's being Protestant and blonde and medium height and having irregular periods and liking sweets, that was just a story, right? Like being in the Waffen-SS . . .

The lesson Grass would have us all learn from The Tin Drum isn't that Oskar is an unreliable narrator — it's that narration itself is inherently unreliable. In Grass's next piece of fiction, Cat and Mouse, narrator Pilenz identifies himself as the cat and Mahlke, the outsider with the vaguely Slavic name and the oversized Adam's apple that a real cat once pounced on, as the mouse. But on the book jacket — for which Grass, as always, did the illustration — we see a fat cat with Mahlke's Ritterkreuz around its neck. Did the cat eat the mouse and appropriate its military decoration? Or is Grass's metaphor more complex than it looks? Those who have followed Grass as he jumped out of the fire and into the frying pan in The Flounder and played musical chairs around the poets' thistle in The Meeting at Telgte and chased his post-apocalyptic tail in circles in The Rat and followed the red-bellied title amphibians about the tombstones in The Call of the Toad and rode the paternoster with Fonty and Hoftaller in Too Far Afield and crabwalked through Crabwalk know that, whatever else, he's never simple.

Then there's the Black Cook, who steps out of The Tin Drum and into English for the first time. Manheim translated Grass's "Schwarze Köchin" as "Black Witch." Mitchell explains that "when the novel was first translated, there was no way to know the important role that cooks would continue to play in Grass's later works."

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