Nazism, god-complexes, psychopathy, and musical genius. You might say that Günter Grass's The Tin Drum has all the elements you need for a great story. And you'd be right. The novel follows young Oskar Matzerath, who is telling us his story from inside a mental institution.
The book is a real beast, spanning over five hundred pages in most editions (at least the ones with letters that don't make you squint). It charts the rise of Nazism in the Free City of Danzig (now the city of Gdansk, Poland), where Grass spent his childhood before moving to West Germany as a homeless refugee at the end of World War II in 1945.
Disgusted by the boring and crazy adult world that awaits him, little Oskar decides to stop growing at the age of three. He manages to cope with his crazy family and the deteriorating political situation by drumming constantly (and we mean constantly) on a toy tin drum he got as a present for his third birthday.
The tin drum magically lets him control other people; it helps him remember events from other times in his life and conjure up events that haven't happened yet. Throughout all this, Oskar keeps up the appearance of being a child while having a very grown-up mind. And a very grownup libido. (A 1979 film version was banned in some states because the sex scenes were considered to be child pornography.) People tend to indulge Oskar because he's a cute little boy, but he's really anything but. He's totally obsessive, sometimes demonic, and utterly narcissistic. In a word, creepy. "Chucky" creepy. "Damien" creepy.
The 1959 publication (in German) of The Tin Drum got international attention and rocketed its young 32-year-old author to the top of the literary world. Grass believed that, in the years following WWII, Germans weren't doing much public reflection on the atrocities that their government (with the collaboration of a disturbingly large number of its citizens) had inflicted on Europe. In fact, many members of the new German government had previously held positions in the Nazi regime.
But get this: Günter Grass, the courageous author who wrote this novel (and others) that made German society confront its Nazi past, confessed in 2006 that he, at seventeen, had been a member of the Waffen-SS, the seriously evil military arm of the Nazi party. Even though he wasn't involved in SS atrocities and never fired a shot, he felt he had to unburden himself after all those years of keeping the secret. After all, he said, he freely chose to buy into Hitler's propaganda and fight for Germany.
Some people thought this made him a hypocrite. Others believed it was the reason he wrote this book. A writer for TIME magazine said, "If Grass had not been living with this wretched little skeleton in his closet, he might never have written a word." (Source)
What do you think? Did Grass earn a ton of money and a Nobel Prize by claiming a moral high ground he really didn't deserve? Or did having had to confront his own participation in the war give him the right to demand that others confront theirs?
Here's a thought experiment: think about the worst thing you ever did. The worst. We'll give you a minute.
If you're like most people, the worst thing you ever did probably involved hurting someone else—we're not talking murder or grand theft auto, but doing something you really, really regret. Maybe you bullied someone in grade school. Or cheated on an exam with a teacher who respected you. Or ignored a friend when she was going through a really bad time and needed you to be there.
And if you're like most people, it's very painful to think about those things. You wonder, "How could I have done that? What was I thinking?" Most of us manage not to think about it, because it hurts. Maybe we find ways to rationalize or justify the behavior we're ashamed of. Maybe we only think about it when a situation or person triggers that memory.
Nobody likes to dwell on their past mistakes, especially serious ones. That's why Grass wrote this novel. He knew how easy it is to put the past behind you and create a story to justify it, even when the "worst thing" was horror on an unimaginable scale.
But he also knew what happens when we try to repress those memories: we stop growing; we get distorted. We miss the opportunity to learn about ourselves. Painful memories that get buried can cause some pretty serious problems—in extreme cases, repressed memories can result in PTSD or depression. Forgetting doesn't solve problems—it is the problem. It can be dangerous.
With The Tin Drum, Grass jogged the memories of the postwar generation of German society and he took a lot of flak for it. But he was certain that Germans needed to pay a visit to a collective "Onion Cellar" (Chapter 32) where people could recover their bitter memories and deal with all the guilt and sadness that emerged. Grass believed that, without truly remembering and feeling, we'll remain children who never take responsibility for our choices and their consequences.
So what would Grass probably tell you as you embark on the business of living an adult life? What might he say as a high school or college commencement speaker? Our guess: Keep your eyes open; take responsibility for the consequences of what you do; don't hide; remember where you came from and where you're going. In other words, grow up.
Günter Grass at NobelPrize.org
Who better to tell us about the author than the people who decided to give him a million bucks.
The Tin Drum ("Die Blechtrommel").
This German film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1979. It also shared the highest honor at the Cannes Film Festival (the Palme D'Or) with Apocalypse Now.
Here's Grass's description of his time in the German Army and Waffen-SS.
"Demonizing Günter Grass"
It looks like Grass got himself into a lot of hot water over a poem he wrote in 2012 criticizing Israel's foreign policy.
Günter Grass and Norman Mailer on C-Span
In this public interview, Günter is candid about his involvement with the German army and the Nazi party during World War II.
Günter Grass in The Paris Review
In this interview, Grass sits down with interviewer Elizabeth Gaffney to discuss his life in literature and his often controversial politics.
Grass Receives his Nobel Prize
The good folks at the Nobel Foundation give Grass the last Nobel Prize of the 20th Century. How's that for a legacy? Keep an eye out for the absolutely humongous man standing next to him at the end of the clip.
English Trailer for 1979 Tin Drum Movie
Just so you know, the movie is every bit as weird as the book.
The Tin Drum Audiobook on iTunes
It's just about impossible to get any audio on this guy for free. But here's a handy link to the audiobook for The Tin Drum.
Grass tells all in an interview with the BBC World Book Group in which he reveals that he loves to eat eels and insists there's no symbolism in The Tin Drum.
Grass Chewing on His Pipe
Seriously, do a Google image search of this guy and just try to find a picture of him without his pipe. Guy treats that thing like a tin drum.
Here's a rare pic of Grass while he was with the German Forces in World War II. He's the one on the right, and he's only 16 years old.
The beautiful tower in Danzig that Oskar climbed.
The Polish Post Office
Destroyed in September 1939
The Captured Defenders of the Polish Post Office
These guys were later shot and buried in Saspe Cemetery.
Memorial to the Defenders of the Post Office in Modern-Day Gdansk
These folks are revered as Polish heroes. They were.