Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass. Specifically, it will focus on two particular chapters. First, Chapter 27 (Inspection of Concrete, or Barbaric, Mystical, Bored), and Chapter 28 (The Imitation of Christ). The question posed is: what is the historical, thematic, and stylistic significance of those two chapters on the book? Gunter Grass' "The Tin Drum" is a historic look at a Polish family with a young son stunted by an accident. Oskar turns out to be a performing midget, who is ludicrous and yet endearing. The themes of the book are complex, and the style is demanding, but it is a rewarding read that causes the reader to think, to feel, and to sometimes agree with the author's clearly defined themes.
THE TIN DRUM
Gunter Grass won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. Written in 1959, "The Tin Drum" is his first novel, with a dwarfish main character named Oskar, who is interred in a mental institution throughout the book. Grass' work is nothing if not controversial, and he fully admits he enjoys being contentious in his novels.
The publication of my first two novels, "The Tin Drum" and "Dog Years," and the novella I stuck between them, "Cat and Mouse," taught me early on, as a relatively young writer, that books can cause offense, stir up fury, even hatred, that what is undertaken out of love for one's country can be taken as soiling one's nest. From then on I have been controversial (Grass 13).
Chapter 27 of "The Tin Drum" is entitled "Inspection of Concrete, or Barbaric, Mystical, Bored," and in it, Oskar's theatre troop inspects several German concrete bunkers along the Atlantic Wall. During their visit, the groups inspects the fine concrete of the bunkers, (inlaid with shells from the nearby beaches), and discovers one of the soldiers was an artist before the war. The artist, named Lankes, titles one of his "Oblique Formations" (pillboxes) "Barbaric, Mystical, Bored" (Grass 337), and the troupe leader Bebra replies, "You have given our century its name" (Grass 337). Grass uses the pillboxes as an art form to signify the sheer waste of war. Lankes is an artist wasting him time creating buildings that house men who kill, and this is the reality of war - training does not matter when it comes to defending your country, no matter what is right and what is wrong. He is also pointing out how the world will look at the 20th century in hundreds of years, it will be known as the century of barbarism, mysticism, and boredom. A look back at the 20th century confirms his beliefs. It was a century of wars, from World War I to the Cold War, (not really a war, but still a tense time in history), terrorism, and hatred. It was a century where blacks finally got "equal" rights, women fought for their rights, and others fought for their right to burn the flag. It was a century which revived mystical thought, from Zen to EST, and a century where most people's lives were filled with nothing more than rushing from one place to another in their shiny automobiles, from Edsels to SUVs. As Green notes later on in the chapter, "We dwarfs and fools have no business dancing on concrete made for giants. If only we had stayed under the rostrums where no one suspected our presence!'" (Green 345). Here the author shows what most people believe, that we have no business messing around in things that do not concern us (just as Roswitha had no business at the coffee cart when the shell hit). This is one of the central themes of his book, and Oskar continually illustrates this theme, from his presence in the insane asylum to his throwing himself down the stairs as a child. He is often just where he does not belong, and symbolically this is why his life is such a mess, and he takes responsibility for things he has never done. As this book clearly illustrates, the 20th century was a turbulent time, and certainly one of barbarism, mysticism, and boredom, and Green may be an even better historian than he is a writer.
Stylistically, both chapters, just as the rest of the book, prove difficult to comprehend, because of the continual switching of viewpoints by Green. Oskar is at times the first person narrator, and at times referred to in the third person, all in the same paragraph, and so it is often difficult to discern exactly what is happening, and to whom. The author uses this style to cast a kind of surrealistic veil over the book. Oskar's traveling band of midgets where he drums and breaks glass with his voice is as surrealistic as the war raging around them, and the tone and style of the book symbolizes this surrealistic and yet frightening time. The style also suggests how the troupe does not understand what is happening around them. They are confused, and so is the reader, and so the style works to make the character's lives more understandable and real to the reader.
When the different points-of-view are not confusing the reader, the tone of the chapters is. The scene in the church at first seems to have nothing to do with any of the rest of the book, and yet somehow it lightens the tone of the book, and creates a humorous interlude for the reader. Oskar is a ridiculous character, but the style and tone of the book, along with the gang of unlikely characters who surround him, make him seem normal, which of course, is what Green is trying to say. Those of us who are considered "insane," or are locked up for our beliefs, are often the most rational of all. Oskar may be ridiculous, but those around him are even more ridiculous, and so, Oskar's commitment to the mental institution seems all the more outrageous.
In Chapter 28, Oskar returns home to his erstwhile family and his first love, Maria, who has borne Oskar's child. Maria is distraught over the death of her brother, and Oskar attempts to share the Catholic religion with her, but really discovers his own sense of religion (or lack of it) in the process. "Jesus was the spit and image of Oskar, my healthy flesh, my strong, rather plump knees, my short but muscular drummer's arms. And the little rascal's posture was that of a drummer too" (Green 356). Moreover, as he sits in the church and gazes at the plaster likeness of Jesus, he decides to "show him up" as a drummer! This is the ultimate in bad taste and irreverence. A midget drummer equating himself with Jesus Christ is quite irreverent and quite controversial for anyone who values the church and its doctrine. Green admires controversy in writing, and it shows distinctly here, when the plaster baby begins to drum on Oskar's drum, and not only drum, but also drum like no one Oskar had ever heard.
While round us nothing stirred, he started in with his right stick, then a tap or two with his left, then both together. Blessed if he isn't crossing his sticks, say, that roll wasn't bad. He was very much in earnest and there was plenty of variety in his playing. He did some very complicated things but his simple rhythms were just as successful. There was nothing phony about his playing, he steered clear of gimmicks and just played the drum. His style wasn't even religious, and there was no military vulgarity about it. He was a musician through and through, but no snob. He knew all the hits. He played "Everything Passes," which everyone was singing at the time, and, of course, "Lili Marlene." Slowly, a little jerkily perhaps, he turned his curly head with the blue Bronski eyes toward me, smiled, rather arrogantly it seemed to me, and proceeded to weave Oskar's favorites into a potpourri... (Green 357).
Oskar is visibly shaken, and then begins to have a conversation with Jesus. "Jesus,' I said, summoning up what little voice was left me, 'that wasn't our bargain. Give me back my drum this minute. You've got your cross, that should do you'" (Green 358). Not only is Oskar sacrilegious, he is making jokes with Jesus! Oskar tells Jesus he does not believe in him, but does he believe in the drumming? Later, Oskar tells Jesus: "You bastard, I hate you, and all your hocus-pocus," and Jesus replies, "Thou art Oskar, the rock, and on this rock I will build my Church. Follow thou me!" (Green 358). Clearly, the theme here is the undying belief many people have for their church, no matter what. Oskar does not believe in Jesus, and that is just what Jesus needs to convert: a non-believer. Suddenly afraid Jesus will take away his voice, Oskar does not question the miracle of the drumming, or even his conversation with Jesus, instead, he tests his voice to make sure he…