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Rejecting the Cut & Colour of Uniforms
on 31 July 2014
I wanted to read the book before I saw the film. I came to the book blind, knowing it had a reputation, but unaware of its content or style. For those equally ignorant of the book, the story concerns the life of Oskar, born between the wars in a world where Pole rubs side-by-side with German, and whose physical constitution means that he remains the size of a child. And as a child, he also commences a lifelong predilection for playing a tin drum.
We follow his life, his actions, thoughts, and feelings through the 1930s, through the Second World War, and into the start of the West German economic miracle. Family, neighbours, friends, and enemies and his interactions with them fill the pages. That brief description of the gist of the novel might make it sound as if it is a story of depressing times. It is not. Yes, there is tragedy, but the work is also suffused with a wry humour as Oskar comes to terms with men’s (and women’s) real intentions, as well as cultivating his own.
Grass soon establishes his approach by narrating the thoughts and actions of his character in the first-person singular, and the third person – and even the second person. And all often in the same sentence. Here’s an example that also gives a feel of the subject-matter: “… it would never occur to me to set myself up as a resistance fighter because I disrupted six or seven rallies and threw three or four parades out of step with my drumming … Did Oskar drum for the people? Did he … take the action in hand and provoke the people out in front of the rostrum to dance? Did he confound and perplex? Did he … break up brown rallies on a drum which though red and white was not Polish? Yes, I did all that. But does that make me, as I lie in this mental hospital, a Resistance Fighter? I must answer in the negative, and I hope that you too, you who are not inmates of mental hospitals, will regard me as nothing more than an eccentric who, for private and what is more esoteric reasons, … rejected the cut and colour of the uniforms, the rhythm and tone of the music normally played on rostrums, and therefore drummed up a bit of protest on the instrument that was a mere toy.”
Like all good novels, Grass’s work acts on many levels. Putting aside the symbolism, he mixes into the text considerations of philosophy and history: Rasputin as Dionysius and Goethe as Apollo. And there is also much to marvel at on the literary level. For instance, a bullet fired is a “lead projectile” on a “death-dealing change of habitat”.
That Oskar – and Grass – plays with his readers is also a boon. At one point we have eleven of the 565 pages in the form of a theatre script. And what are we to make of these words of Oskar? “I have just reread the last paragraph. I am not too well satisfied, but Oskar’s pen ought to be, for writing tersely and succinctly, it has managed, as terse, succinct accounts so often do, to exaggerate and mislead, if not to lie.” And yet ‘Oskar’ writes in a convincing and direct non-nonsense role. Yet whilst the reader is compelled to give Oskar the benefit of the doubt, it is clear that the history is troubled by odd inconsistencies and just downright plain lies.
I enjoyed Oskar’s company (most of the time), and felt I understood his outlook on life (most of the time). It’s not the easiest novel to read, but a good reader likes a good challenge, so long as he gets paid well for his labours. I wonder, though, as I open the DVD packaging, how they have translated Oskar’s journey into film …