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Critical Essay by W. Gordon Cunliffe
SOURCE: "Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum)," in Günter Grass, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1969, pp. 52-86.
Cunliffe is an English-born scholar of German history and literature. In the following excerpt, he presents a detailed examination of the main characters and major themes in the first section of The Tin Drum.
[The madness of The Tin Drum's main character and narrator, Oskar,] has no historic parallels and none of the associations with Nietzsche, Hölderlin, and Beethoven that lend grandeur to Thomas Mann's Adrian Leverkühn. Oskar is not a case of "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown," but rather of "a tale told by an idiot / Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
The sound and fury are represented, in the first place, by the title's tin drum which Oskar belabors to summon up the past. The drum is childish as well as militaristic and aggressive. Suitably enough, the original wielder of the drum was Hitler, whom General von Lossow contemptuously described as "the drummer" at the 1924 trial, an epithet which Hitler, in his final speech, turned into a compliment. Brecht, in his poem "Beginn des Krieges" (Beginning of the War), also calls Hitler "der Trommler" (the drummer).
In spite, or because, of his unusual circumstances [he is confined in a mental institution], the narrator is anxious to prove his complete orthodoxy; and soon after he has introduced himself and his attendant, Bruno, he inserts a sententious paragraph implying that he intends to eschew the pretentious contrivances of modernism and write a straightforward, old-fashioned narrative:
One can start a story in the middle and proceed to spread confusion, boldly striding backwards and forwards. One can affect modernity, do away with time and distance and afterwards announce, or have it announced, that one has, at last and none too soon, solved the time-space problem. One can also assert, at the very beginning, that today it is impossible to write a novel, but then—behind one's own back, so to speak—write something really sensational and emerge as the very last of the novelists.
Actually, however, far from beginning at the beginning, Oskar begins his narrative in his West German present before embarking on his excursion through the past. Repeated reference is made to a friend named Klepp, for example, and to a lawyer who pays regular visits to Oskar in his ward. What is more, this pattern is repeated throughout the novel, with past and present placed in uneasy juxtaposition. This not only creates the characteristic atmosphere of doubt, but is, in its apparent absurdity, true to reality since a narrator's recollection of past events is mingled with the present.
The perspective, so elaborately described at the beginning of the novel, similarly combines the propagation of uncertainty with adherence to the truth. [The] attendant Bruno peers through the peephole while Oskar looks out; Oskar describes his position as being "in front of" the peephole, with Bruno relegated to standing "behind" it. From the material Oskar provides, Bruno makes grotesque figures of knotted string dipped in plaster-of-paris, although "whether he is an artist is a question best left aside." The wavering perspective, here as in Hundejahre, hints at the presence of the author behind his fictitious narrator. The lurking presence of the real narrator accounts for Oskar's frequent shifts from one side of the peephole to the other, so that personal confession is mingled with personal testimony, the cognizant subject being included in the object described.
Before Oskar commences his narrative, the question arises whether Bruno should color his string shapes. Oskar is forced to conclude that there is, after all, a demand for color; for his visitors do not like the unrelieved white of his ward and scratch the paint with scissors or draw indecent figures. Thus prompted, he orders virgin white paper (causing, Bruno reports, the salesgirl to blush) which he proceeds to soil with his chronicle. In this way the colors that recur throughout the work are introduced—the white of the ward and the nurses, the black of the Black Cook and the eels, the red of blood and fire. In the prevailing uncertainty it is, of course, impossible to assign to these colors a simple "symbolic" function, for they refuse to conform to tidy categories. White signifies not only "purity" but also the confined monotony of Oskar's ward and the retrogression to childhood represented by the little white cot which he still occupies at the age of thirty. The colorful, active life of Oskar's grandfather is shot through with the red of flames. The red-and-white of Oskar's drum recalls both the Polish flag and the red, black, and white flag of Nazi Germany, and so on. After all, the wicked cooks of the play are white (as is the whale in Moby Dick), while snow plays a part in the persecution of Jenny and Amsel in Hundejahre.
Monotone grays and browns predominate when Oskar opens his chronicle in the year 1899, with his grandmother burning potato plants in the endless plains of the Vistula in what was then West Prussia. Using long obsolete German place names, he designates the exact place where she sat, preferring precision to nostalgia:
[She sat] near Bissau, still nearer the brickworks, before Ramkau, behind Viereck, in the direction of the road to Brenntau, between Dirschau and Karthaus, with her back to the forest of the Goldkrug….
While she is sitting by the fire, Joseph Koljaiczek enters the scene, pursued across the muddy fields by two gendarmes; the sober tale takes a sudden turn to the grotesque when Joseph dives under the grandmother's skirts for refuge. It is presumably while the grandmother, Anna, is being questioned by the suspicious policeman, Oskar's mother is conceived, although Anna, for the sake of propriety, denies this.
Still dwelling on "The Wide Skirt" which provides the chapter's heading, Oskar describes his grandmother's habit of wearing four skirts, one over the other, and how, on Saturday, the dirtiest of the current four was replaced by a clean one in orderly peasant routine. In this fashion the wide skirt comes to reveal its central function in this part of Oskar's narrative, that of a cipher of the world before 1914, "the golden age of security," as Stefan Zweig has called it. Grass enlivens this cliché by embodying it in an objective correlative that covers many aspects of this famed security, including the sexual, without neglecting the steady regularity persisting in the turbulence. The refuge of Anna Bronski's wide skirts is freely offered to Koljaiczek and often sought by Oskar in later times. It is a characteristic of Grass' methods that the narrator (Oskar, in this case) is unaware of the significance of skirt and drum.
The drum is first mentioned in the second chapter. Oskar, who has permission to play it for a few hours every day, consults it as an oracle that conjures up the past. We learn of further adventures of Anna Bronski and Koljaiczek after their hasty marriage. Wanted by the police for setting fire to German sawmills as a gesture of Polish patriotism (red flames and whitewashed walls), Joseph takes up work as a log rafter under an assumed name. A journey to Kiev gives Grass an opportunity to present a panorama of pre-1914 Eastern Europe as the steamer makes its way from Germany to Russia along the Vistula, Bug, Pripet, and Dnieper. He dwells on the military history of the region, "created for cavalry attacks, for a division of Uhlans wheeling left in the sandbox." The theme of war introduces, with characteristic planned casualness, the clash between Pole and German which occurs when the foreman of the rafters, a Prussian named Dückerhoff, recognizes Joseph. The encounter of Pole and German is yet another recurring theme in Grass' novels (both Mahlke in Katz und Maus and Matern in Hundejahre struggle, half-consciously, to reconcile these warring elements in themselves), and Grass now takes the opportunity, through his narrator, to renounce any clichés in his depiction of this struggle. Between Dückerhoff and Koljaiczek there were "no political quarrels, German-Polish knifings, nor was there the attractive background of a good, solid mutiny on board, arising from social abuses." The story also dispenses with sentimental reconciliations. Instead, German-Polish relations take their normal course in this little incident. His business in Kiev completed, Dückerhoff returns to Danzig. His route is exactly traced, and the reader observes that he passes through territory that the course of history will subsequently transfer from Germany to Poland.
Dückerhoff reports his suspicions to the police, as befits a good citizen, and is never heard from again. As a result, Joseph's log-raft is shadowed from the time it crosses into Germany. On its arrival at Danzig, a police launch sets out to make the arrest. Throwing off his lethargy, Joseph flees across the rafts, jumps into the water and is presumably drowned just as a Prince of the Imperial Household is launching the Columbia, a luxury liner for the American service. Realizing the Polish capacity for surviving against heavy odds, Oskar advances a theory that he escaped to the United States. In this incident, Grass, without contrition or condemnation, mirrors German-Polish relations in all their vicious inconclusiveness. The chapter ends as the fire-raiser Koljaiczek, hunted by a powerful police apparatus, is submerged by the launching of the mighty German ship. Yet, while according to vague rumor the irrepressible Pole is resurrected in America as a prosperous businessman, the Columbia, we are informed in the next chapter, is lost in the First World War.
With the same deliberate absence of explanation and protest, the author tacitly compares the hospital ward of the cramped, neurotic West German present with an earthy but colorful and wide-ranging past summed up in the "Wide Skirt" of the chapter's heading. The third chapter follows the already familiar pattern, with a grotesque and puzzling title ("Moth and Light-bulb") and an excursion into the narrator's West German present. In his hospital ward, Oskar tries, without much success, to find an understanding audience for his grandmother's adventures, but his West German friends receive the story with incomprehension and indifference or as material for parody. The celebrated dividing line between past and present—the year 1914—has made the story alien to them, and when his friends have departed, Oskar resumes his narrative and tacitly acknowledges the change by beating his drum "in that quicker, jerkier rhythm that all had to obey from August 1914 onwards." Elements of this new rhythm are hinted at in the fact that Klepp, one of Oskar's visitors, is a jazz enthusiast and confirmed Marxist.
Oskar's narrative moves swiftly to the armistice, when "peace treaties, giving rise to other wars, were patched up." For example, the Danzig Free State was formed and placed under the League of Nations, and Oskar traces with lunatic precision the course taken by the strange boundaries of the new territory as it cuts through the familiar landscape in which his grandmother had been seated. The public event is ironically reflected in Oskar's petit-bourgeois world when Oskar's mother marries a German, Alfred Matzerath, while, as it later turns out, retaining a passionate relationship with her Polish cousin, Jan Bronski. All of Grass' novels present this characteristic pattern of official history alternating with obscure, often scurrilous or fantastic biography and low-life fiction, somewhat in the manner of Döblin's novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929).
The parallel between public and private events is especially striking here, for if Matzerath comes originally from the Rhineland, Bronski is not, strictly speaking, a Pole but of the same Slav race as Oskar's grandparents. He is, in fact, one of the Cassubians (Kaschuben) characterized in Theodor Fontane's novel Effi Briest as a fine-looking but—from the Prussian point of view—unreliable people. Jan Bronski adopts Polish nationality in 1920—possibly out of pique at being jilted by Oskar's mother—and obtains a position in the Polish Post Office in Danzig. The contrast between Bronski and Matzerath is partly that between the introvert and the extrovert, the former being quiet, sly, and passionate while the latter is jovial, loud, and rather foolish (but an excellent cook). With the masterfulness that is typical of Grass' women, Agnes Bronski takes as a husband the one who cooks while she works in the grocer's shop she has inherited; she takes the other as a lover. This arrangement provides a derisory parallel to the arrangement made concerning Danzig on the international level.
The parallel must not be taken too far, however. The grocer's shop flourishes under the competent guidance of Oskar's mother. It and the adjoining apartment are described with the vivid freshness of a child first growing aware of the outside world. But the fresh eye is coupled with an adult's awareness, for Oskar points out the specifically lower-middle-class nature of his surroundings. It is against this appropriate background that the historical events are seen. The account of Oskar's birth, which concludes the chapter, "explains" in grotesque fashion the novelist's gift for combining adult perspicacity with infantile naïveté: "I was one of those infants, sharp of hearing, whose spiritual development is complete at birth, and from then on needs only to be confirmed." So acute was Oskar's intelligence that he can recall his birth, which ran smoothly, as he comments with lofty detachment, "apart from the obligatory rupture of the perineum." This miraculous birth, which scorns the slow educational process of the "Entwicklungsroman," recalls that of Rabelais' Gargantua who, when he was born, yelled loudly and clearly "à boyre, à boyre."
Oskar especially recalls a moth that drummed against a light bulb (60 watts, manufactured by Osram) during his birth. The incident, recalled in minute detail, causes the narrative to linger over a characteristic word play on drums and drummers. With this sound of drumming, and with the moth and the light, Oskar's birth in 1924 takes place under threatening omens. It is to be noted, however, that Oskar's world is a chaos where reality has been denuded of its symbolic value. The moth, the conventional symbol of a creature threatened, is here the source of threatening drumfire. It is impossible to distinguish between victim and persecutor, between innocence and guilt. Oskar, too, is bewildered, but inwardly resolves to follow his mother's suggestion, which he overhears, and to acquire a tin drum.
In an abrupt switch to the narrator's present, Oskar's next point of departure is a photo album rescued from Danzig and containing pictures extending from the turn of the century to Oskar's postwar life in Düsseldorf. The album links the sections of this rambling novel and also serves as a peg on which to hang a lightly camouflaged discussion of the novelist's method—a matter which occupies Oskar's attention more than he is prepared to admit. He begins by observing how "the photographic art of the fin de siècle has degenerated into the utilitarian photograph of today." Where Joseph Koljaiczek faces the camera, broad and confident in his fireman's uniform, the best that Oskar and Klepp can do with their mass-produced passport photographs is to cut them up and reassemble them as grotesque mosaics. This apparently foolish prattle is, in effect, a discussion of the modern novelist's method. Why does he use a "montage" of realistic details instead of presenting a straightforward portrait? The answer is, of course, that "montage" is a means of coming to grips with reality in a more uniform society. Oskar adduces the sadness felt by Klepp and himself as an example. This sadness is "ungegenständlich," i.e., objectless, without obvious cause—the word is repeated three times—and cannot be captured by any other method.
Oskar and his creator do not allow this discussion of artistic methods—discreetly disguised as pointless chatter—to distract them from the main plot, for by means of the photo album the story of the engagement and marriage of Oskar's mother is rapidly summarized in the manner of the cinema, which Oskar loves to attend and which he is presumably parodying at this point. The triangular relationship between Oskar's mother and her two lovers is the subject of some ambiguous geometrical terminology.
Oskar invites the reader, if he wishes, to find "cosmic significance" in the triangle by relating it to the world outside, i.e., to the German-Polish quarrel over Danzig after 1919. At any rate, Oskar, with his discerning dwarf's eye, does not hesitate to find the whole commonplace story, with its Central European and petit-bourgeois background "significant for the future." This ironic passage is one of the few direct hints at an association between Oskar's microcosm and the macrocosm of public events. In fact, the nature of this association is unforced and its discovery left to the reader, so that Oskar's reputation as a teller of simple tales is left untarnished. Yet the association is both general—it was in Oskar's lower-middle-class circles that the Nazi movement had its most massive support—and particular. Thus Oskar does not forget to state that his parents wedding took place at the time of the Treaty of Rapallo, a pact of economic and military aid between Germany and the new state of Soviet Russia signed in 1922. The adultery which Oskar's mother committed, we are told, on her very wedding day creates a humorous parallel, if one cares to draw it, to the shaky, opportunistic nature of this and subsequent Soviet-German treaties.
A later photograph also hints at a threat lurking under the harmless, commonplace exterior. It shows Oskar and his parents in front of a plank fence. His mother is wearing a Russian blouse of a type popular in the 1920's, so that the scene recalls the Czar's family, later murdered by the revolutionaries. Finally, there is a photograph of Oskar on his third birthday. He explains that he deliberately ceased to grow at this age, rejecting thereby the mundane possibility of inheriting his father's shop in favor of a greatness which he describes as "Messianic." Oskar's infantility, coupled with an adult self-destructive will and the urge for an illusory absolute power, plainly makes him a spokesman for his era.
Oskar's mysterious hint that "he remained a three-year-old" is expanded in the following chapter, whose title is taken from a nonsense rhyme. The reader learns that Oskar contrived an accident on his third birthday, a fall down the cellar steps that provided the world with an acceptable reason for his stunted physical development. With amusement Oskar notes that, by general consent, the blame is placed on Matzerath, the German. After four weeks in the hospital, Oskar's destructive powers come to their first fresh fruition. Marching about Danzig as a harbinger of the coming war, he shatters glass with his shrill, vibrating voice, "a chaste and therefore pitiless diamond."
By now Oskar has emerged as an "embodied expression" of the infantile destructive principle. The resemblance to the Expressionists extends to concrete details. Richard Sorge's early drama Der Bettler (The Beggar) thus includes an insane character who beats on a toy drum and entertains Messianic ambitions. The hero of Frank Wedekind's Karl Hetman, der Zwergriese (Karl Hetman, the Dwarf-Giant) is a crippled writer who is committed to a sanatorium and offered employment as a circus clown. Even Grass' word "zersingen," used to express Oskar's powers of shattering glass by singing, recalls not only Expressionist frenzy in general, but, more particularly, Benn's coinage "zergellend."
While Oskar revels in his newly discovered powers, his mother is kept busy rejecting claims for broken windows. Oskar's destructive voice is not only very real, but it calls forth significant reactions from his environment. The company assembled at the Matzeraths is at first alarmed when Oskar's voice shatters a clock's glass, for the clock represents the world of order. On the other hand, the point is soon reached where Oskar's misdeeds are not always unwelcome to the grownup world, for when he shatters the light bulbs at his fourth birthday party, the company seizes the opportunity to pair off in a short but unappetizing orgy. A final paragraph, this time in the third person, records the inevitable deterioration. Later in his career, Oskar reports, he will use his peculiar talents out of an idle joy in destructiveness—a parodistic parallel to the career of any tyrant or revolutionary movement.
Before Oskar continues his autobiography with an account of his one-day school career, he occupies himself with the postwar world and the habits of his friend Klepp who works many hours in the composition of a time-table for his daily routine. Although Klepp is a member of the Communist Party, illegal in Western Germany, his chart is a comfortable affair that allows little time for agitation and propaganda activity. In postwar Germany, after the catastrophe, even revolutionaries respect time-tables and a regular routine. Oskar's account of his early youth implies the presence of an entirely different, harsher spirit in the early 1930's when the catastrophe was approaching. Even in Oskar's kindergarten a boy attacks Stephan, the son of Jan Bronski, on the grounds that he is "a dirty Pole," eliciting but a mild reproach from the elderly lady in charge of the children. The scene takes place near the Gutenberg memorial, an object which presides over another act of childish persecution in Hundejahre.
Oskar's mother is anxious that her son, in spite of his abnormality, enter the local Pestalozzi school. Oskar, however, with his anarchistic spirit, is resentful of his teacher and utters a shout that pulverizes her spectacles. Before he leaves the schoolyard with his mother for the last time, he is photographed standing in front of a blackboard on which is chalked "My first day at school."
By normal standards, the whole situation is full of pathos, but Oskar can see only fear, especially in the sentence on the board written in the "evil" script invented by Sütterlin (the "German" script taught in German schools until the 1940's). Fascinated … by its hangman's nooses and jagged points, Oskar feels the urge to read, a skill he learns from a thick volume on Rasputin and his mistresses, although in every fourth lesson he asks for Goethe, Rasputin's complement. This compromise serves to define Grass' own approach which similarly mingles anarchistic imagination and disciplined art. When Oskar's area of perception extends to the complex of tenements in the working-class suburb of Langfuhr, the combination of childhood vividness and adult detachment with which he describes this proletarian landscape is, likewise, a reflection of the author himself. The overriding impression is, however, one of fear. Two features of the wider surroundings which Oskar begins to observe in this stage of his development embody this fear: the racks for carpet-beating, situated in every courtyard, and a soup made of urine, brickdust, and frogs prepared by a gang of children who compel Oskar to eat it.
The pessimism that inevitably accompanies experience causes Oskar to turn destructive; he becomes "a yeller without cause or reason." In a mood of despair after the bitter lesson of the repulsive soup, he climbs to the top of the Stockturm, a Brick Gothic tower that was one of the few medieval structures in Danzig to survive the war. From this point Oskar utters a shout that shatters the windows of the nearby State Theater—a parody of an Old Testament prophet uttering a curse over the doomed city. In the same vein of prophecy the Jewish toydealer, Markus, advises Oskar's mother to leave Bronski because he sees a time approaching when the German cause will prosper at the expense of the Polish. Actually, she will take Markus' advice by dying.
In an abrupt shift to the present, Oskar reflects that the scene of all these activities now lies in Poland and that Markus' prophecy was valid only for a short term. Germans today search for Poland "half with Chopin, half with revenge in their hearts." Their attitude is complex since it is determined by trading loans, regret for the past, and the resentment of refugees driven from their homes. They make the mistake of searching for Poland "with the soul," an ironical echo of Goethe's Iphigenia who longs for the land of the Greeks:
Und an dem Ufer steh ich lange Tage,
Das Land der Griechen mit der Seele suchend.
Realizing that the soul is irrelevant, Oskar emerges with an admiration for Poland's powers of survival, although it is continually divided among conquerors.
The next chapter, "The Tribune," continues the Goethe parody. In accordance with the convention of Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Theatralische Sendung (Wilhem Meister's Theatrical Mission), the theater plays an important part in a young man's education. In Oskar's world, of course, conventions can exist only as their own parody. Thus his first contact with the stage is, farcically, the occasion when he breaks the windows of the State Theater. This leads to the desire for further contact, which duly takes place on Oskar's level: a visit to Tom Thumb and, in the summer of 1933, an open-air performance of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman which Oskar abruptly terminates.
This education receives a fitting climax in a circus visit, when Oskar first encounters the ageless, Goebbels-like midget Bebra who, recognizing Oskar's genius, advises him to turn to politics so that he can gain power in the coming age when "they will build tribunes, people the tribunes and preach our downfall from tribunes." Oskar's theatrical education has led him, by way of German folklore and Wagner, to the Nazi Party.
Oskar's "putative father," Matzerath, joins the Party in 1934 and proves to be a conscientious member. With increasing earnestness he advises Bronski to give up his position in the Polish Post Office. He also places Hitler's portrait in the place of honor above the piano from where it glares across at a displaced Beethoven on the opposite wall. In Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus Beethoven is seen as the spiritual ancestor of Adrian Leverkühn whose music represents the coming era of technically accomplished barbarism. In Die Blechtrommel, the continuity of German history is farcically suggested by the simultaneous presence of Hitler and Beethoven in a lower-middle-class parlor.
Following Bebra's advice, and recognizing a congenial spirit in the brilliant hunchback Nazi agitator Löbsack, Oskar tries to take his rightful place on the speaker's platform at Party demonstrations. It is only when the Nazis refuse to see in him anything but the three-year-old boy whom he outwardly resembles that Oskar turns against the Party by hiding under the platform and beating out a waltz that cuts through the trumpets of the Hitler Youth and sets the spectators dancing. The mood rises to a frenzy when he strikes up a Charleston, whereupon Löbsack, making the best of a bad jab, joins in the dancing. Chance and circumstance have made Oskar into a resistance hero. His irrational powers have defeated those of Löbsack and the Nazis, and he can slip away in triumph to a heavy North German Sunday dinner.
Oskar can offer effective resistance to the Nazis because he taps the same sources of irrational power. Thus it is that, on the strength of his activities under the speakers' tribune, he lays no claim to any special virtue, certainly not to having been a member of the underground resistance. He is especially sardonic at the expense of those who remained in Germany during this era but who afterwards claimed to have offered inner, spiritual resistance to the regime ("interior emigration"). Oskar was no such "resistance hero." He disturbed meetings of all kinds—Communists, Catholic, Young Polish, and Vegetarian, and his powers cut across all man-made boundaries. "My work was destructive" he admits, explaining that during this period he also used his powerful voice to break shop windows and thus tempted innocent passersby to commit petty thefts.
The reactions are as varied as Oskar's victims: some succumb to the temptation, some hasten away, while others fall but afterwards give themselves up to the police. Oskar finds them all equally amusing and relishes the ridiculous moral perplexities he has caused, noting with glee the ineffectiveness of conventional systems of morality and liberal enlightenment. Even Oskar's irrationalism is not allowed the last word, however. The climax of Oskar's grotesque shoplifting is reached on a cold night in 1937 when he succeeds in tempting Jan Bronski into stealing a ruby necklace. The whole incident is adorned with onomatopoeia, suggestive of shattering glass, and with references to Parzival seeing drops of blood in the snow. Yet the elaborately presented episode, like so many other events of this period, fades out shortly after the war when the jewelry is exchanged for Lucky Strike cigarettes, the black market currency of a defeated Germany.
The customary return to the narrator's West German present in the next chapter, "Kein Wunder" (which means both "No Miracle" and "No Wonder"), shows him deprived of his miraculous voice. This impotence dates from the postwar period in Düsseldorf; but when Oskar resumes his chronicle, the reader can perceive its beginnings in the prewar past when his voice failed to shatter the stained-glass windows of the Church of the Sacred Heart. Needless to say, it is not virtue and enlightenment that defeat Oskar's infantile dynamic, but a related, rival magic. Frau Matzerath's church-going, on which Oskar accompanies her, is part of a regular round that includes her weekly visits to her lover, Jan Bronski. The interior of the church exercises on Oskar "the fascination of a redhaired woman." The bewitching powers of this "scarlet woman" are demonstrated by means of fragments from missals and prayers, a play with echoing phrases concerning "blood," "virgin," and "cross" uttered half in parody, half in admiration. Above all, a statue of the infant Jesus elicits irreverence and admiration from Oskar. He slings his drum around the neck of the statue; but the hoped-for miracle does not occur and Jesus does not beat the drum.
The preceding chapter has introduced a strain of religious parody, and this is carried across into the next chapter, "Good Friday Fare," which includes the notorious eelcatcher scene. Oskar's mother and father, inevitably accompanied by Jan Bronski, and Oskar himself go on a Good Friday outing to the seaside near Danzig. There they encounter a longshoreman fishing for eels and using a horse's head as bait. The sight of the eels squirming out of the head causes Oskar's mother to vomit; it also induces in her such a perverted taste for fish as to cause her death after an interval of some weeks during which she consumes great quantities with silent hysteria. In this manner she is expressing, Oskar believes, her disgust with the triangular relationship she had sustained for years, ultimately, perhaps, her disgust with life itself which takes such monstrous forms.
The incident possibly reflects the Good Friday scene in which Parzival, after an encounter with an elderly hermit, feels the urge to make his peace with God. Certainly, Oskar is convinced, his mother wished to leave Jan unencumbered in his career and that her disgust is directed against Matzerath, her official husband—a man whose inborn urge to yell, laugh, and applaud with the crowd made him, the reader is told, an early member of the Nazi Party. Yet, as usual, Grass guards against facile interpretation.
Matzerath proves himself a considerate husband during his wife's lingering illness and is prepared to adopt the unborn child which, as he realizes, is probably not his own. At the funeral he behaves with appealing Protestant awkwardness, while Frau Matzerath's mother prays volubly in Cassubian, finally flinging herself on the coffin, loudly blaming Matzerath.
Before the first book ends on the verge of the Second World War, a number of grotesque incidents occur with Herbert Truczinski as their focus. Whereas the preceding chapters concern religion, these chapters concern, roughly speaking, history and politics. When Oskar first encounters Herbert, the latter is working as a waiter in a seaman's tavern. In his broad Danzig dialect, interspersed with fragments of Polish and English, he attempts to control his unruly clientele, a microcosm of Europe, who are always quarreling. The result is that Herbert is brought home in an ambulance once or twice every month. His back patterned with scars from frequent knifings, Herbert emerges from Oskar's account as a long-suffering member of the working classes whose injuries, his mother acutely suspects, are caused by his defense of such matters as the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War.
Herbert is remarkable not only for the disinterestedness of his actions but for the workings of an active conscience. He is distressed when a sea captain dies of heart failure during a tavern brawl and at having to steal food during a period of unemployment. Herbert is not one of Grass' successful figures; he is strangely lifeless and comes dangerously close to contradicting the ambiguity of Grass' world by being merely symbolical, although Grass tries to avoid this by injections of grotesqueness and by hints at more complicated fields of reference. Thus the tavern proprietor is named Starbusch, plainly a reminiscence of Starbuck in Moby Dick.
Herbert's death is described in the chapter "Niobe." After weeks of listless unemployment, he obtains an apparently safe post as an attendant at the Danzig museum of local history. This museum, however, contains a menacing object, a figurehead from a Dutch vessel captured by two fifteenth-century Danzig seafarers. It has the form of a generously proportioned girl, painted green and known in the local dialect as "De griehne Marjell," although her official name is Niobe—the queen whose fourteen children were killed before her eyes. The Flemish girl who served as a model was burned as a witch, with the result that there is a curse attached to the figure. Many bloody events in Danzig history have been strangely associated with this figurehead and, in more recent times, it has brought about the deaths of various museum officials and visitors.
In his account, Oskar links its baleful influence with the destruction of Danzig at the end of the Second World War and attributes the comparative immunity of the other ancient Baltic seaport of Lübeck (now in Western Germany) to the wise refusal of its authorities to receive the figurehead into the museum. In fact, to some extent the figurehead resembles the town of Kaisersaschern in Doktor Faustus, which spreads its baleful influence, rooted in witchcraft, torture and superstition, to the present. While there is in Mann's Kaisersaschern an element of moral judgment—a condemnation of the direction taken by German history—Grass' figurehead operates in an amoral, senseless world. The irrational powers embodied in Niobe are expressed in an obscene episode. On the first day Herbert goes on duty without the protection of Oskar's superior magic, he commits suicide, clutching the figurehead in a grotesque embrace—a symbol of enlightenment and decency overcome by, and helpless before, the force of historical events.
In an abrupt turn to the present, Bruno enters Oskar's ward in Western Germany to remove the drum from his reach because he is disturbing the other patients with the noise. Bruno's action implies a prim apology for the violence of Herbert's death and serves, at the same time, as a reminder of the central part played by the drum as the object that calls the world's tune.
In spite of Oskar's promise to play softly in future and to have more regard for the other patients (namely, the readers), his drum, heedless of human wishes, is louder than ever in the next chapter, "Faith, Hope and Charity," which closes the First Book. The irrational, primitive violence that has been observed in obscure, private lives now enters the field of official history. It reaches a crescendo on the eve of the Second World War with the "Kristallnacht" of November 9, 1938, when members of the SA (the "Brownshirts"), on Goebbel's orders, raided synagogues and Jewish shops. In the Danzig pogrom, the toydealer Markus is found dead by the local Brownshirt bullies who wreck his shop. The raid on the toyshop is presented so as to emphasize the infantile destructive urge that here finds expression. The raiders slash open dolls and befoul the shop with excrement in the manner of overgrown children. As they have usurped Oskar's infantile role, he feels free to make amused adult comments, and notes the futility of writing "Jew swine" on the window before breaking it.
In their brown uniforms, Oskar tells us, the SA men all looked like the trumpet player Meyn. Yet when the narrative turns more fully to inspect this epitome of Brownshirt brutality, the result is puzzling and full of inconsistencies. Meyn had been a friend of Herbert Truczinski when they were both members of a Young Communist group. He appears at Herbert's funeral in uniform. On seeing him, Schugger Leo, a harmless eccentric who frequents the cemetery, flees in terror across the graves. Meyn is neither puzzled nor amused by Leo's behavior. On the contrary, he is perceptive enough to return home downcast at this "token of future misfortune." Overcome by melancholy and unaccustomed sobriety, Meyn beats the tomcats that are his sole companions and leaves them for dead. A neighbor, who has witnessed this, reports Meyn, and comically enough, he is expelled from the Brownshirts in spite of his attempts to make good through a display of destructive zeal during the raids on Jewish shops.
The episode serves as another illustration of Grass' implicit thesis that men have only limited control over their actions. Meyn's realization that his present course will lead to no good end finds incoherent expression in the incident of the cats. Yet his remorse serves no good or useful purpose; rather it aligns itself with the malevolent spirit that rules human affairs and, through Meyn, contributes its small quota to the current atrocities. Even the Christ Child of the approaching Advent season turns into the "heavenly gasman" whose spirit fills the world.
The malevolent rule extends from small affairs to big, as is indicated by the fact that one of Meyn's cats, killed on the eve of the war, is named "Bismarck," a comic parallel to the dismissal of the "Reichskanzler" by Kaiser Wilhelm II, which is often held to have led to a deterioration in the conduct of German policy and thus to the First World War. The approach of the Second World War is heralded by a tattoo of drumbeats, conveyed by means of a series of sentences beginning with the traditional fairy-tale opening, "Es war einmal" (Once upon a time), an indication of the infantile nature of what is to follow.
This section contains 6,347 words
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