Book Review: The Tin Drum

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  December 15, 2009

And yet, cooks play an important role in Grass's early works. In his absurdist 1957 play The Wicked Cooks, the five title chefs beleaguer a count for the secret of his "gray soup," which would appear to be ashes (the kind that come from death-camp crematoria). In his 1960 poetry collection Gleisdreieck, Grass depicts a robust cook brandishing a spoon on the page opposite "Cooks and Spoons," and in the poem itself, if we're not the brandisher, we're the brandishee, curling up in the spoon — "because it was hollow and promised sleep" — on our way into someone else's stomach. In "In the Egg," from the same volume, "We live in the egg," waiting to hatch and hoping someone doesn't crack us into a frying pan. Food in The Tin Drum is life and death. The courtyard children force-feed Oskar their soup of spit and pulverized brick and live frogs and pee. His mother Agnes collapses after seeing the eels wriggle out of the black horse's head on Good Friday, and then she gorges herself to death on fish, the cycle of eating and being eaten having grown insupportable.

For Grass it's all one, a recurring cycle like the endless loop of the paternoster in Too Far Afield. We're perpetually in the Year of the Rat, from the pair who take to the roof in his 1957 play High Water to the heraldic rodent that Racine futilely attempts to expunge in Gleisdreieck's "Racine Tries To Change His Coat of Arms" to the title Christmas present of The Rat — a novel in which Oskar's grandmother Anna Koljaiczek celebrates her 107th birthday by being the only survivor of an atomic blast. "The Eleventh Finger," in Grass's first poetry collection, The Advantages of Windfowl, becomes the 11th finger that Oskar dips into Maria's moss; Gleisdreieck's insurrectionist scarecrows become, in Dog Years, ancient Prussian gods dressed up in old SA uniforms. Grass obsesses equally over white (chefs and nurses) and black (nuns); he can't separate red and white in the blood and snow of "Polish Flag" anymore than he can in the interlocking chevrons on the barrel of Oskar's tin drums.

But it's always two, as well, as the wistful last line of Dog Years — "Each of us bathed by himself" — attests. So it's appropriate that we now have a second English version of Grass's first novel. If it isn't one, it's the other. Perhaps.

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