Places: The Tin Drum

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Die Blechtrommel, 1959 (English translation, 1962)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social satire

Time of work: 1899-1954

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Danzig

*Danzig Tin Drum, Theor Gdansk (DAN-zik; GEH-danshk). Major Polish port on the Baltic Sea that has a long and colorful history dating from the tenth century. At times through the ages Germany controlled the city, and it was called Danzig. During other periods it was a city-state known as Gdansk. In 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and seized Gdansk, its name was again changed to Danzig. After World War II it became a part of Poland and was again called Gdansk, which has continued to be its name.

Günter Grass was born and grew up in this city, where his parents owned a grocery store. The opening section of The Tin Drum outwardly recalls Grass’s early years through the voice of his fictional narrator, Oskar Matzerath. Like Grass, Oskar was born in the 1930’s. His parents also operate a small grocery store, and much of the first part of the novel takes place in the shop and the family’s adjacent living quarters. Oskar succeeds in creating the ambience of a family-run store, bringing the customers to life, as well as making the goods, their texture and smells, tangible. He fully captures the colorful port city with its ancient buildings, narrow streets, and cramped quarters, along with its waterfront and beach areas. He also recounts the lives of his grandparents, who lived on a farm in the Polish province of Kashubia, a rural area that he describes in a distinctive manner.

Like his fictional Oskar, Grass lived through the German invasion of the city in 1939 and its aftermath. These events are turned into a vivid piece of fiction that depicts how the presence of the German occupation force dramatically alters the city’s atmosphere. Although Grass certainly drew on his early years to give this part of the novel its rich texture and realistic tone, the narrative itself undermines the authenticity of its setting. Places and objects take on a significance in the novel far removed from reality, as Grass converts ordinary surroundings and objects into extended metaphors and motifs–Oskar’s tin drum being the most notable example.

As the narrative progresses, Gdansk, which is accurately drawn in its pre-World War II condition, exemplifies any city transformed from a peaceful state by war. Under its new name of Danzig, the city once called Gdansk turns into a place where barbarity and fear dominate. That its identity as “Gdansk” and “Danzig” has vacillated over the centuries adds to its metaphoric possibilities, which Grass exploits to the fullest.

*Düsseldorf

*Düsseldorf. Industrial city in west-central Germany where Oskar is writing his memoirs in a mental hospital. After the war, Oskar and his family are forced to emigrate to Düsseldorf. Grass, who served in the German army during World War II, also ended up in Düsseldorf after the war and had experiences there similar to those that Oskar records in his autobiography.

Starting out as a fishing village in the seventh century at the point where the Düssel River flows into the Rhine River, Düsseldorf gained importance during the Industrial Revolution. It became the financial center of the surrounding industrial area known as the Ruhr, whose coal mines produced the energy and whose factories built most of the implements for both world wars. Significantly, during the 1930’s the German industrialists met with Hitler in Düsseldorf to offer their support if they could be assured of another war. In the 1940’s the Allies bombed the city into rubble, which is what Oskar finds when he arrives there. Düsseldorf’s checkered history makes it a suitable place for Grass to carry out his satiric view of Germany during and after the war.

Oskar relates how he and his family survive among the ruins of Düsseldorf and how his mother makes a living on the black market. At first Oskar works as a tombstone engraver, which provides the opportunity for him to describe the cemeteries in detail; cemeteries are another recurring motif in the novel. Later he becomes a model at the newly opened art academy, a venue he pictures with exactness.

As the city starts to rebuild, night clubs and dance halls open in bombed-out buildings, such as the Lion’s Den, one of Oskar’s favorites. Oskar’s jazz trio plays in another club called the Onion Cellar, an appropriate name considering that the owner serves raw onions to make his patrons cry, a response they desire and enjoy. This idiosyncrasy illustrates how Grass extends the meaning of place throughout the novel.

In Düsseldorf the sense of place is remarkably concrete, including its rutted-out streets, its blocks of shattered apartment buildings, its once grand buildings that lay in ruins. Even though this devastated postwar city, like so many in Germany, is described in realistic detail, it is at the same time turned into a succession of metaphors and motifs to depict the senselessness of war.

BibliographyHatfield, Henry. “Günter Grass: The Artist as Satirist.” In The Contemporary Novel in German: A Symposium, edited by Robert R. Heitner. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967. A paean of praise to Grass and The Tin Drum. Explains the satirical intent of many passages in the novel that are obscure to readers not intimately familiar with German history and the German language.Hollington, Michael. Günter Grass: The Writer in a Pluralist Society. London: Marion Boyars, 1980. Although Hollington devotes only one chapter to The Tin Drum, references to the novel permeate the entire book. Hollington credits Grass with forcing Germans to look candidly at the Nazi era and with inspiring a younger generation to fight against the complacency of their elders.Maurer, Robert. “The End of Innocence: Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum.” In Critical Essays on Günter Grass, edited by Patrick O’Neill. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. A detailed interpretation of Grass’s novel but with some questionable conclusions. The major value of the article is that it delineates the many literary influences, ranging from Voltaire to Thomas Mann, that are manifest in The Tin Drum.Miles, Keith. Günter Grass. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1975. Although only chapter 2 deals exclusively with The Tin Drum, readers will learn much about the novel and about its impact in the introduction and in the other seven chapters. Miles considers Grass to be Germany’s and perhaps the world’s greatest living novelist. His interpretations of and insights into The Tin Drum are perceptive and very useful to the reader trying to understand Grass’s often cryptic prose.Tank, Kurt Lothar. Günter Grass. Translated by John Conway. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1969. Contains a short biography of Grass and considerable analysis of Grass’s early works, most especially The Tin Drum. The analysis might be difficult for readers not acquainted with German literature and the argot of literary criticism.
Categories: Places