I read The Tin Drum twice; I admit, that both times I read this novel, I forced myself to read it. The first time I only made it to page 100, then stopped. The second, most recently, I tried again for a classic book club and finished. Both times I read it because it is considered a classic; Grass is a Nobel Prize in Literature winner. As with other masters of the craft, Grass’s work is complex, multi-layered, and difficult to comprehend for the average reader. Despite my experience with German history and literature, I miss many of the messages the author is trying to convey. I spend a lot of time analyzing the text, re-reading, and wondering how the characters and stories are meant to be interpreted? While other novels require analysis, which is rewarding in the end, this text requires the reader to constantly assess and reconsider the characters, stories, historical and cultural contexts, which makes for a frustrating reading experience.
Grass composes a work that is both stand-alone story and historical and political commentary, making the story more complex and requiring the reader to delve deeper to gain understanding. The Tin Drum is the story of protagonist, Oskar Matzerath, a boy growing up in Nazi occupied Poland, who cannot grow. It is littered with metaphors, analogies, anecdotes, which keep the reader guessing about the concepts of truth and reality for the characters in the story and more broadly, for German society. In using figures of speech so abundantly, Grass achieves a tone of confusion and misunderstanding that stays with the reader throughout the story. The intricacies of the text can either be valued by the reader, or viewed as a hindrance.
The novel requires that a reader constantly question the motives of the author in telling Oskar’s story. The stories about Oskar are too odd to be real, so the reader knows there must be underlying messages to interpret from them. There are overarching cultural and historical themes, which seem obvious, such as Oskar’s guilt and shame mirroring those of the German people. But, there are many more situations, characters, events, where the reader must guess about the author’s intentions. For me, never being certain of where or how the author intends the story to proceed makes the reading less enjoyable. Although any interpretation is subjective, I feel incompetent for not knowing, for certain, the messages I should take from the text. I prefer a novel with symbolism clear enough that I can eventually interpret it. Much of The Tin Drum still baffles me, and this makes it hard to like the book.
So, is the novel worth reading? The answer depends on what kind of reader you are and what kind of literature you prefer. Those who enjoy the investigation and breakdown of the narrative and character traits will certainly enjoy the complexities of The Tin Drum. If you know a lot about world history or German history and culture, this novel would probably be less intimidating for you. But, if you like reading that’s straight forward and fast-paced you might want to avoid this one. For me, the amount of time I spent thinking about what I should get out of it made it too hard to experience the pleasure of simply reading the book.
3.5 out of 5 stars