A final drumbeat


Helga’s Post #110: 

One of the most memorable novels I recall reading was ‘The Tin Drum’ (Die Blechtrommel) by Guenter Grass. It wasn’t an easy read especially as I was only 18 at the time. I did not, at that age, appreciate most of the nuances, the symbolism and political messages embedded in the story. I had trouble understanding much of its content and did not find it particularly entertaining. But in the early Sixties the book was ‘fashionable’ and a must read by Vienna’s intelligentsia, who I so envied and wished I could belong to. Many years later I re-read it in its English translation in Canada, my new country.

Reading the book again made me realize that I had in fact learned a great deal when I had first read it. So much sounded familiar and I vividly recalled some of the scenes and visual images. I realized then how the book had shaped my values at an impressionable age. I still hold some today (not all; he is known to have made a few gaffes). I believe he also influenced my writing, or I should say, my desire of how I would like to write.

I was saddened by the news that Mr. Grass, novelist, artist, moral commentator, all-round agitator, and Nobel Laureate died on April 13th, aged 87. His politics were as rich and contradictory as his magnificent prose. I owe him a tribute and would like to devote this post to him.

The Economist magazine honored Mr. Grass with an article about his life and his writing. I would like to share this story of a great writer with you:

‘WHEN he was young, Günter Grass was taken by his mother to see “Tom Thumb” at the Stadttheater in Danzig. It delighted him. The Grimm Brothers’ tiny boy, unseen, tricked and adventured his way through life, a gadfly getting into places nobody else could. He crept into a horse’s ear, rode in triumph on the brim of a hat, was eaten by a cow, and in the end reappeared grinning from the belly of a wolf.

Tom also lodged in Mr Grass’s brain; and in 1959 he reappeared as Oskar Matzerath, the diminutive hero of his first and most celebrated novel, “The Tin Drum”. Oskar, at three, refused to grow any more, and became a small, irritating, persistent witness to 20th-century events that most Germans wished to forget. Crouched under a rostrum in 1933, he watched brownshirts and blackshirts at a rally. Hidden in a toyshop corner in 1938, he saw the Jewish owner abused and taken away, the shop smashed and fouled and the dolls disemboweled. In September 1939, curled asleep in a basket of letters in Danzig’s Polish post office, he heard and felt the shelling as the Nazis invaded.

Nor was Oskar silent. First, he had a red-and-white drum, which he hardly ever ceased beating and which, beaten right, could summon up the past. Second, he could scream high enough to shatter glass: sometimes just to make a mess, but at other times with diamond precision.

He could be an ignorant pest but was also, in some ways, Mr. Grass’s ideal of how a writer should be. Not at the centre of events but on the fringes, unbiddable and subversive. Not with the establishment, the capitalists and the complacent petty bourgeois, like his own shopkeeper parents, but down with the victims and the poor, preferably on the political left. And, above all, loud. The job of a writer, especially in a postwar West Germany wrapped in willful amnesia and silence, was to keep drumming, drumming, drumming: “pissing on the pillars of power, sawing away at the throne”, and hauling painful memories to the surface again.

Subjunctives and sausage

There was much to be recaptured, not all of it heinous. For him, the war had taken away two particular loves. One was his birthplace, Danzig, the city of towers and continuous bells, of multicoloured ancient stone and marble-topped café tables, of shipyards and the smell of the Baltic: all now lost to Poland, but reconjured in his first three picaresque novels. The other loss was his pleasure in his own language. Only regular postwar readings with other radical writers could “take the goosestep out of German” and revive his love of its “utterly supple hardness”, its artfulness and the beauty of its subjunctives; rekindling, too, his childhood feeling for the word Labsal, refreshment, as when safely home from some perilous adventure.

Again, it was important to say the words aloud. The writing of his long, dense books was slow, punctuated by coffee and by the drawing and sculpting in which he was also trained and gifted. The drawings, many of fish, plants or reptiles, appeared in the books and on their jackets, often coming to the fore if words failed; and he spoke as he wrote, chewing over the sentences with the same reflective relish he might devote to potato pancakes, roast goose or liver sausage. He liked, he said, to mix spit with his ink.

He did so in all senses, for he never held back from voicing rage. The unification of Germany he thought a disaster, an invitation to more warmongering and the end of the distinctive culture of the East; his novel on the subject, “Too Far Afield” was written from the nostalgic viewpoint of two elderly men. Fired with pacificism, he attacked Germany’s military help for Israel and the presence in Germany of American missiles. Two giant novels, “The Flounder” (1977) and “The Rat” (1986) fumed about the world’s indifference to hunger, environmental destruction and the patient, adaptable wisdom of animals. He was a speechwriter for Willy Brandt of the Social Democrats in three campaigns, but it was a rare politician who would link himself for so long to such a fulminator.

His allies did so because this vigorous figure, in cord trousers and tweed jackets and, under an ever-drooping moustache, an ever-present pipe, was both Germany’s Nobel prizewinner and its moral voice. Hence the dismay when, in “Peeling the Onion” in 2006, Mr Grass revealed that part of his own life had been wrapped in silence: his service as a teenager in the Waffen-SS in 1944. By that time, he explained, this was a mere fighting arm of that vicious organisation; he had been conscripted into it; had not fired a shot, and was soon invalided out. In his meticulous account of it all, no detail seemingly forgotten now, he was another character from a Grimm fairy tale: this time a tearful, foolish young man on the run in the woods as the Russians advanced, wetting himself with terror.

His enemies, thoroughly tired of his political eruptions, called him a hypocrite. Friends thought it showed the immensity of the task he had taken on in the beginning. National amnesia afflicted even the fearless creator of the red-and-white drum. But what would they have done without him? And what other literary figure—apart from Tom Thumb, perhaps—had so persistently, and irritatingly, and triumphantly, got under his country’s skin?’

(Courtesy: The Economist print edition, April 18, 2015)

4 thoughts on “A final drumbeat

    • Thank you, Liz. I hope your book club will enjoy it. I am sure you will have some spirited discussions, as Mr. Grass would have it.

  1. Yes, brilliant, confusing and confused at times too. Perhaps these are all necessary ingredients for great minds. I too found it a heavy read, even the second time around twenty years later.

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