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Friday, June 13, 2008


Just finished a stash of books, most of them bought months earlier,but discarded uptil now due to the rigours of life on campus,exams or just plain old lethargy.Easily the most accomplished among them was German Nobel Laureate Gunter Grass's 1962 classic "The Tin Drum".(The others are Vikram Chandra's 900-page tome "Sacred Games" , Koji Suzuki's cult thriller "Ring", and Ian McEwan's disturbingly dark short story collection "First Love,Last Rites" expect some posts on these in the days to come.)

"The Tin Drum", along with "One Hundred Years Of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and "Midnight's Children" by Salman Rushdie completes the Holy Trinity of magic realism in contemporary literature.(Interestingly,I have read them in reverse chronological order of publication, i.e. first Rushdie,then Marquez and now Grass!).After reading this masterly work,I can appreciate how Grass has inspired the other two writers, especially Rushdie.

Where does one begin about a magnum opus like "The Tin Drum" ? First, I suppose, the bare bones: The novel chronicles the German nation during the tumultuous years of 1925-1955 , as seen by Oskar Matzerath, a dwarf by his own accord, who has willed himself to stop growing after age three,in an attempt to escape the world of adults, a world which is repugnant and dense to his sensibilities. In his own words, he is "one of those auditory clairvoyant babies whose spiritual development is complete at birth, it just needs to affirm itself".He is also blessed with a piercing shriek with which he can shatter glass at will.

Oskar is writing his memoirs in a mental hospital, where he is an inmate,via his tin drum,the like of which he has carried with him since he was three years old.Beating frantically on his drum, he remembers his entire life, right from his birth and beyond.Oskar is a complex,ambiguous and unforgettable character.The music he makes with his drum once disrupts a Nazi Party parade, causing the marchers to go at different speeds.This is an attempt by Grass to show the uplifting power of art over war,and also an anguished cry over the loss of individuality imposed by the monstrous Nazis.

At the same time Oskar is also frequently cruel and barbaric, under the guise of his apparent child-like nature (which is backed up by his stunted appearance),he commits several heinous crimes,and causing the death of Jan, his mother's Polish lover and Oskar's presumptive father. Oskar's glass-shattering voice is an obvious nod to Kristallnacht(German for crystal night),the night which marked the start of a full-blown genocide of the Jews under the Nazi regime.On a single night,9th November 1938, about a 100 Jews were slaughtered, about 30,000 were deported to concentration camps and thousands of synagogues were destroyed.

The monumental achievment of Grass is to avoid being judgmental about the perpetrators of these and other Nazi crimes.Instead the members of the Nazi Party are shown to be bakers, carpenters, cooks(like Matzerath, Oskar's father).......everyday people who commit unspeakable crimes due to the choices they make.Oskar is half -Polish, physically imperfect, and on the face of things, a babbling imbecile.......thus he is the antithesis of everything Hitler asserted about the "racial superiority of the Aryans".However, he also represents the worst of those times,the way he causes the death,one by one,of everyone he loves.

The book is filled with first-rate imagery, delightful vignettes and some memorable episodes.Some of my favourites are Anna Bronski(Oskar's maternal grandmother)and her wide,four-layered skirt, Herbert Truczinski's scarred back which told stories with each scar,the Polish Post office massacre,and how Oskar unwittingly caused the death of a group of nuns who were crossing a tense area.The line between comedy and tragedy is blurred by Grass.

This is best exemplified when a Nazi party official is sacked from the party for "cruelty towards animals".Only in a book as amazing as this can you swallow this, a party which has no qualms about massacring millions of innocent Jews, including women and children, and then sack one of its own for being cruel towards an animal.

I could go on and on about this magical work of art, about how this is undoubtedly one of the most important pieces of 20th century literature, how it inspired the undisputed literary superstar of today,namely Salman Rushdie, I could point out a dozen or so examples,offhand, in various Rushdie novels which all point towards the unmistakeable spirit of Grass hovering in the horizon........but I guess that's for another day,and another post.

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