Wednesday, 4 January 2017

ENG: German book tips: The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

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It has honestly taken me several months, but now I have finished the reading of The Tin Drum (Die Blecktrommel) by Günter Grass. To my defense, it should be said that I only read the book during short tram trips in Zurich; from Belvoir Park to Stockerstrasse and that is only four stops in each direction.

The plot will be well-known to most of you, not least thanks to the film from 1979. The book is written down when the protagonist Oskar is in a mental hospital, but presents his full life from his childhood in the German Free City of Danzig before and during World War II through his later move to postwar Dusseldorf. Oskar has a very different perspective on life, since he stopped growing when he was three years old. Despite this, he manages relatively well throughout the destiny of his family, above all thanks to his innate ability to make glass crack with his voice and the sense of rhythm which he developes through years of playing toy tin drums.

To read The Tin Drum in the original German language was a bit of a challenge. Some of Grass’ sentences are extremely long (see example below). The novel contains comments which are written in local German dialect or in German with a Polish accent. The protagonist interchangeably refers to himself either as I or as Oskar - sometimes he even changes in the middle of a sentence. Apart from this, the story is anything but straight forward. Oskar tends to repeat and further elaborate on what has already been told and thus makes you unsure of what really happened back then, and what is an afterthought.

Having said that, it should be emphasized that I never had to take the help of dictionaries. The book is consistently very funny and also interesting from a historical perspective, especially for those of us who care about the relationship between Germans and Poles. If you - like me – on top that are interested in the history of the Polish city of Gdańsk, the first parts are like a goldmine. Here we get the chance to travel on the old tram lines, go swimming in wartime Sopot and experience both city architecture as well as landscapes in the surrounding countryside with its Kashubian culture.

Some of the episodes will probably stick in my memory forever. Here we find Oskar's childhood memories about the safety he used to feel (and the odor he used to smell!) while hiding under his grandmother's skirts, and how he probably contributed to the death of both men, whom he could consider to be his fathers. Among his memories as an adult, his utterly failed attempts to approach his neighbour, the nurse Dorothea, will aslo stay with me.

It deserves to be mentioned that The Tin Drum is included in the list of the Best German Novels of the 20th Century. The book is the first part of Grass’ so called Danzig trilogy, which also includes Cat and Mouse and Dog Years.

Günter Grass (1927-2015) was a great personality in the West German post-war debate and, in 1999, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. When he in 2006, in conjunction with the publication of his autobiography, announced that during World War II - more or less voluntarily – he had joined Waffen-SS, he for obvious reasons, was strongly criticized. It should be stressed that in spite of his revelation, both Poland's former President Lech Wałęsa as today's Polish residents of Gdańsk has allowed him to retain the title of honorary citizen of the city, thanks to his outstanding literature about the old German Free City of Danzig.

In short, I strongly recommend The Tin Drum. It is indeed written in a very special way, but clearly within my limits, although I am anything but a literary scholar.

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Below you will find what I think is the longest sentence of the novel and at the same time a shining example of its rich personal gallery and of how the author sometimes refers to himself as I, sometimes as Oskar:

 ”Der Falter trommelte zwischen Glühbirnen meine Geburtsstunde ein; die Kellertreppe mit ihren neunzehn Stufen trommelte ich und meinen Sturz von der Treppe, als man meinen dritten sagenhafter Geburtstag feierte; den Stundenplan der Pestalozzischule trommelte ich rauf und runter, bestieg mit der Trommel den Stockturm, sass mit der Trommel unter politischen Tribünen, trommelte Aale und Möwen, Teppichklopfen am Karfreitag, sass trommelnd auf dem zum Fussende hin verjüngten Sarg meiner armen Mama, nahm mir dann Herbert Truczinskis narbenreichen Rücken als Trommelvorlage und bemerkte, als ich die Verteidigung der polnischen Post am Heveliusplatz auf einem Blech zusammenschlug, von weit her eine Bewegung am Kopfende jenes Bettes, auf dem ich sass, sah mit halbem Blick den aufgerichteten Klepp, der eine lächerliche Holzflöte unter dem Kopfkissen hervorzog, diese Flöte ansetzte und Töne hervorbrachte, die so süss, so unnatürlich, so meiner Trommel gemäss waren, dass ich ihn auf dem Friedhof Saspe zu Schugger Leo führen konnte, dass ich, als Schugger Leo ausgetantzt hatte, vor ihm, für ihn und mit ihm das Brausepulver meiner ersten Liebe aufschäumen lassen konnte; selbst in den Dschungel der Frau Lina Greff führte ich ihn, liess auch die grosse fünfundsiebenzig Kilo aufwiegende Trommelmaschine des Gemüsehändlers Greff abschnurren, nahm Klepp auf in Bebras Fronttheater, liess Jesus auf meinem Blech laut werden, trommelte Störtebeker und alle Stäuber vom Sprungturm hinunter – und unten sass Luzie -, ich aber erlaubte Ameisen und Russen, meine Trommel zu besetzen, führte ihn aber nicht noch einmal auf den Friedhof Saspe, wo ich die Trommel dem Matzerath nachwarf, sondern schlug mein grosses, nie endendes Thema an: Kaschubische Kartoffeläcker, Oktoberregen drüber, da sitzt meine Grossmutter in ihren vier Röcken; und Oskars Herz drohte zum Stein zu werden, als ich vernahm, wie aus Klepps Flöte der Oktoberregen rieselte, wie Klepps Flöte unter Regen und vier Röcken meinen Grossvater, den Brandstifter Joseph Koljaiczek, aufspürte und wie dieselbe Flöte die Zeugung meiner armen Mama feierte und bewies.” 

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Swedish version

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