History and objects are almost an obsession with Grass. Most of his fiction is driven by the momentous events of history, and Grass employs objects, and extended metaphors with these objects, until they become symbols of that history. He is both praised and condemned for his use of minute details in his novels, and this mass of detail contributes to the bulk of most of his works. When he employs less detail, as in Cat and Mouse and Headbirths, the works are significantly shorter.
World War II is the overwhelming background in many of Grass’s works, such as The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, and Dog Years, while The Flounder tackles the entire history of the human race, especially the history of males and females. The tin drum, in the novel of the same name, serves as the symbol of Germany’s military aggression, as well as other human violence. In Cat and Mouse, the character Mahlke has an Adam’s apple “like a mouse,” and the narrator is “the cat” intent on (and successful at) destroying Mahlke the mouse. Other historical symbols of destruction abound in this novel, including a sunken minesweeper and a stolen Iron Cross. In Dog Years, scarecrows, dogs, and ballerinas are only a few of the objects that become symbols of destruction, violence, and (at times) rebirth. In The Flounder, a talking fish becomes the guiding intelligence throughout humankind’s violent history and continual rebirth.
Another hallmark of Grass’s fiction is its point of view: shifting, unpredictable, self-aware. Many of his narrators are unreliable, shifting between the first and the third person in telling their own tales, changing their minds, and telling different versions of the same events. Oskar of The Tin Drum begins his story with the line, “Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital,” and he shifts constantly between “I” and “he, Oskar,” sometimes within the same sentence. The three narrators in Dog Years contradict one another. The first-person narrator of The Flounder is a different male during each period of history, as well as the contemporary man in the tale; the “I” in this novel is a different version of each of his male predecessors while, at the same time, encompassing all of these ancestors. In his later works The Call of the Toad, Too Far Afield, and Crabwalk, Grass uses multiple points of view to examine the German past, its present, and its future.
Many of Grass’s narrators are highly self-aware artists and storytellers. The Tin Drum’s Oskar says, “I have just reread the last paragraph. . . . Oskar’s pen . . . has managed . . . to lie.” Local Anesthetic opens with, “I told my dentist all this.” Grass’s narrators know that they are creating art: They debate the merits of doing so, mock their audience, and despair of their ability to create the best art possible. The journalist narrator of Crabwalk questions his ability to tell the story his mother wants him to tell.
Religious and political themes dominate Grass’s work. Indeed, religion and politics are inseparable from his fiction. After a visit to the Church of the Sacred Heart in The Tin Drum, Oskar insists that he is more Jesus than Jesus because the plaster statue is unable to play Oskar’s tin drum. Mahlke of Cat and Mouse worships the Virgin Mary and builds shrines to her. The historical politics of World War II are pervasive in The Danzig Trilogy, Call of the Toad, and Crabwalk. The politics of religion throughout history are woven into the structure of The Flounder, and contemporary politics appear when the flounder is put on trial for giving men, and not women, advice. From the Diary of a Snail, Headbirths, and Too Far Afield continue this discursive weaving of art, politics, and religion.
The Tin Drum
First published: Die Blechtrommel, 1959 (English translation, 1961)
Type of work: Novel
Against the backdrop of the rise of Nazism, World War II, and Germany’s collapse, the self-made dwarf Oskar Matzerath narrates his life story.
The Tin Drum opens with the line, “Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital,” thus setting the stage for its unreliable narrator, Oskar Matzerath, who tells varying versions of his story throughout the book. Oskar begins his life story with his Kashubian grandmother Anna Bronski and her improbable impregnation by Joseph Koljaiczek, who eludes police by hiding under Anna’s four skirts as she sits in a potato field. This fantastic conception is only one of the “miraculous” events that occur in the novel. The importance of history is evident in Oskar’s concern with the ancestry details.
Anna’s daughter Agnes grows up into a lovely woman, falls in love with her beautiful cousin Jan Bronski, but marries the German Alfred Matzerath, whom she nurses during the war. Throughout the first part of the novel, Agnes is torn between these two men, just as the Poles are torn between Germany and Poland, and Oskar continually speculates on the true nature of his parentage, unable to decide which of the two men is his real father. When Oskar is born, clairaudient and with his mental development completed at birth, Alfred Matzerath promises that Oskar shall inherit the grocery when he grows up. Preferring his mother’s promise of a tin drum on his third birthday, and entranced by the sound of a moth beating its wings against a sixty-watt light bulb, Oskar decides to stay: “Besides, the midwife had already cut my umbilical cord.” That is a pattern with Oskar: Whenever possible, Oskar chooses childhood pursuits over adult responsibilities; whenever possible, he claims responsibility for actions that have already occurred or that he could not have controlled.
On his third birthday, Oskar does indeed receive his drum, and, disgusted with the world of adults, with its deception and sordidness, including his mother’s ongoing affair with her cousin Jan, Oskar decides that he will not become an adult: He throws himself down the cellar stairs in order to have an explanation for his having stopped growing at the age of three. Throughout book 1, Oskar drums his way through the increasingly sordid Danzig environs, paralleling the rise of National Socialism. Germany’s increasing aggression mirrors the deteriorating...
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