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Beautifully written, but not very accessible
on 20 June 2003
'The Tin Drum' is a precursor of Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children', and tries to do for twentieth century Germany what Rushdie did for India. It is the story of Oskar Matzerath, whose development both mirrors and is mirrored by a country recovering from one world war and sliding into and out of another one.
Oskar's is a sometimes bewildering journey. The style is episodic, with seemingly unconnected events described in largely discrete chapters, but underpinned with recurring motifs, not least of which is the toy drum with which Oskar records and voices his thoughts. This style ('Magical Realism') has become familiar since this book was published, and it is obvious that writers like Marquez and Rushdie have both borrowed heavily from Grass. Unlike 'Midnight's Children', though, the cultural and historical references are oblique and often remain obscure. Because of this, long stretches of the book become the diary of an odd and strangely distasteful character, simultaneously childlike and aware, seemingly emotionally detached from the events he describes. This is not a huge problem, because Grass' writing is entertaining and occasionally funny, and although Oskar himself remained an unsympathetic character, the fates of those around him kept my interest to the end. However, my lack of understanding of many references meant that I frequently wondered where the book had just taken me and why. That said, the chapters are short and the cast of characters fascinating, and it is a book that can be put down and picked up with ease. Fans of Magical Realism will enjoy this book, as will anyone interested in twentieth century Germany. However, readers should be prepared to accept that much of what is in this book will completely pass them by.