A Tin Drum by Gunter Grass

Earlier this month I was looking around in Waterstones for a new book to take with me on holiday. Just by chance, I picked up this book, and thought it would be a good opportunity to expand my horizons in foreign literature. And honestly, I’m not sure I would have written a review on it had I not seen the film this week.  If you have not seen the film then I’m not sure whether I would recommend it or not. If you’re into weird films, with characters that act outrageously peculiar then this is the film for you. If not, then I suggest you give the film a miss. 

But let us start first by reviewing the book. It is interesting to say the least. The writing itself is simple, you aren’t hit with long sentences, or a confusing narrative. As for the main character, he’s like Marmite, you either love or you hate him. Oskar is born in Danzig, the sometimes German but mainly Polish town. His life takes place before, during and after WW2. To the clueless adults around him he is born with the cognitive faculties of an adult, though most people around think he is stupid. At the age of three he decides to stop growing. He chooses the life of being a dwarf in order to avoid working in his family’s grocery store. He does this by throwing himself down the stairs into the cellar to effectively stunt his growth. On his third birthday Oskar is given a tin drum, which he centres his whole being around completely. He lets out a glass shattering scream if anyone tries to take it from him. Apparently the tin drum is meant to be symbolic for the marching of the German armies, but I’ll be honest that I just found his incessant need to drum a bit bratty. 

Photo by Sylvie Tittel on Unsplash

The basic premise of the book is that Oskar is wiser than his years, and makes no secret of it. His character is arrogant in claiming to know better than anyone else. Throughout the book he commits multiple crimes, including many murders (direct and indirect), vandalism, theft etc. He’s vain, selfish, malicious, cruel and a compulsive liar. I would not want to get on the wrong side of him basically. The only thing I do like about characters like this is that you are obviously meant to dislike them. Grass doesn’t portray Oskar in a way that makes you feel sorry that he is a dwarf. And if I thought the character of Oskar was dislikeable in the book, well then I was not ready for the film. 

The child actor who plays Oskar is the creepiest little person I’ve ever seen. I’m even wondering whether he’s a fantastic actor, or is he really just that creepy in real life. It somehow made the book even more terrifying, when I had the image of this little guy in my head. The film was widely praised, and even won an Academy Award for best foreign film. It was seen to be taking a stand against war and nationalism, and in favour of the innocence of childhood. Having watched the film, some of the themes of the book become easier to visualise and understand. 

Overall, the book is well worth a read if you’re looking to widen your foreign literature reading like I was. If you have a wider knowledge around Germany/Poland in WW2 then it will help you enjoy the book far more. The Guardian wrote a review of the book naming it the ‘defining novel of the 20th century’. I don’t know if it is because I was born in 1996, and never fully experienced the 20th century but I cannot say that I agree with the above statement. It’s a good book for sure, but when comparing it to books written by George Orwell in this time period. Let me know if you find the film as weird as I did!

Until next time, 

-S

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