Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass

An absolute gem by Grass. The book unfolds through most of before, during and after Second World War. The main character is Oskar. A character so hard to imagine but so vividly portrayed that you actually read the book through his eyes.

Slowly my childhood - the childhood that means so much to me - slipped away. The pain in my gums, foreshadowing my first teeth, died down; tired, I leaned back: an adult hunchback, carefully though rather too warmly dressed, with a wristwatch, identification papers, a bundle of banknotes in his billfold. I put a cigarette between my lips, set a match to it, and trusted the tobacco to expel that obsessive taste of childhood from my oral cavity.

Childhood is the best time of your life - so they say. But for so many, the memory of childhood is merely a burden. You carry so many "symbols of progress" that you wish to imagine all of it never happened. How can you purge it? If only it were as easy as blowing cigarette smoke out.

Condemning the first four partitions of Poland, they a busily planning a fifth; in the mean time flying to Warsaw via Air France in order to deposit, with appropriate remorse, a wreath on the spot that was once a ghetto. One of these days they will go searching for Poland with rockets. I, meanwhile, conjure up Poland on my drum. And this is what I drum: Poland's lost, but not forever, all's lost, but not forever, Poland's not lost forever.

Oskar hopes to be forgiven for the poetic effects. He might have done better to give figures, to enumerate the casualties of the Polish cavalry, to commemorate the so called Polish campaign with dry and eloquent statistics. Or another solution would be to let the poem stand but append a footnote.

Out of solicitude for the men's relatives, who would have been crushed by the expense of consuming for so large and flower-consuming a mass grave, the authorities assumed full responsibility for maintenance and perhaps even for transplantation. They had the sandy soil leveled and the cartridge cases removed, except for one - one is always overlooked - because cartridge cases are out of place in any respectable cemetery, even an abandoned one.

The book in a major way laments the invasion of Poland. Having read a bit on the history of Poland, I marvel at the country which had been invaded and partitioned so many times.

The toy merchant sat behind his desk. As usual he had sleeve protectors over his dark-grey everyday jacket. Dandruff on his shoulders showed that his scalp was in bad shape. One of the SA men with puppets on his fingers poked him with Kasperl's wooden grandmother, but Markus was beyond being spoken to, beyond being hurt or humiliated. Before him on the desk stood an empty water glass; the sound of his crashing shopwindow had made him thirsty no doubt.

A person sits behind his desk draining a glass of water before his state-sponsored attackers break into his shop to kill him. What is it about this phrase which I keep reading again and again?

Still, the effect had to be verified. Like a modern painter who, having at last found the style he has been seeking for years, perfects it and discloses his full maturity by turning out one after another dozens of examples of his new manner, all equally daring and magnificent, I too embarked on a productive period.

My dear Oskar, believe an experienced colleague. Our kind has no place in the audience. We must perform, we must run the show. If we don't, it's the others that run us. And they don't do it with kid gloves. They are coming. They will take over the meadows where we pitch our tents. They will organize torch-light parades. They will build rostrums and fill them, and down from the rostrum they will preach our destruction. Take care, young man. Always take care to be sitting on the rostrum and never to be standing out in front of it.

So every artist must find his style and must run the show. If we believe in the show, it is for us to control it or else madness will reign sooner or later. Sooner or later - would the later be when your madness runs the show rather than the art you once believed in?

All three seem happy, as though congratulating one another on their immunity to surprises of the sort that can arise only if one member of their triumvirate should acquire a secret life - if he hasn't had one all along. In their tripartite solidarity, they have little need for the fourth person; all they needed her for was to aim the camera at them, so perpetuating their triangular felicity, photographically at least.

Mama is indulging in a little joke which strikes me as rather good: she has drawn a card and is showing it to the camera lens but not her fellow players. How easy it is with a single gesture, by merely showing the queen of hearts, to conjure up a symbol that is not too blatant; for who would not swear by the queen of hearts?

The others, however - as I have said, there were thirty of them who couldn't make up their minds to run for it - were standing against the wall across the side entrance when Jan leaned the queen of hearts against the king of hearts and, thoroughly blissful took is hand away.
And when he leaned the queen of hearts against the king with the red heart, the edifice did not collapse; no, airily it stood, breathing softly, delicately, in that room where the dead breathed no more and the living held their breath.

Thus it is that even that which we would swear by should fail in the end. So was the burden of being the queen of hearts what made her exit the scene first? Or would the queen of hearts be able to lean against the king with red bleeding heart only in a room where everyone was to exterminated shortly. Did the living hold their breath waiting for the inevitable or were they hoping for a last minute reprieve?

What impressed me most, however, was not the play of light and shade but the sound produced by the dialogue between moth and bulb: the moth chattered away as if in haste to unburden itself of its knowledge, as though it had no time for future colloquies with sources of light, as though this dialogue were its last confession; and as though, after the kind of absolution that light bulbs confer, there would be no occasion for sin or folly.

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