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16.1.14

À mon chevet: 'Die Blechtrommel'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
It wasn't till mid-December that the accusations of the lacquered, red-flamed conscience round my neck began to lose their persuasive power: the lacquer showed hairline cracks and started to peel. The tin began to yield, grow thin, and split before turning transparent. As always when something is suffering and struggling toward its end, the eyewitness wishes to shorten its sufferings, to end things more rapidly. Oskar speeded up during the final weeks of Advent, worked so hard the neighbors and Matzerath held their heads in their hands, was determined to settle his accounts by Christmas Eve; for on Christmas Eve I hoped to receive a new, guiltless drum.

I made it. On the eve of the twenty-fourth of December I rid my body and my soul of a crumpled, flapping, rusty something, reminiscent of a wrecked car, and with that I hoped the defense of the Polish Post Office had also been crushed once and for all. Never has any human being -- if you are prepared to accept me as one -- experienced a more disappointing Christmas than Oskar, who found beneath the Christmas tree a whole range of presents set out for him save one -- a tin drum.

There was a set of building blocks I never even opened. A rocking swan, meant as a very special present, was supposed to turn me into Lohengrin. Just to annoy me, no doubt, they had the nerve to place three or four picture books on the gift table. The only items that appeared useful were a pair of gloves, some laced boots, and a red sweater Gretchen Scheffler had knitted. Dismayed, Oskar let his gaze glide from the building blocks to the swan, stared at the picture-book teddy bears meant to be cute, holding all sorts of musical instruments in their paws. One of these adorable, mendacious beasts even held a drum, looked as if he knew how to drum, as if he were about to launch into a drum solo, as if he were drumming away; and I had a swan but no drum, probably more than a thousand building blocks but not a single drum, had mittens for all those bitter-cold winter nights but nothing round, smooth, ice-cold, lacquered, and tinny in my mittened fists to carry into the winter night so the frost could finally hear something truly white.

Oskar thought to himself: Matzerath has hidden the drum. Or Gretchen Scheffler, who's come with her baker husband to polish off the Christmas goose, is sitting on it. They want to share my pleasure in the swan, the building blocks, and the picture books before they pull out the real treasure. I gave in, leafed like a fool through the picture books, mounted the swan, and rocked back and forth in utter disgust for at least half an hour. Then in spite of the overheated apartment I let them try the sweater on me, slipped into the boots with Gretchen Scheffler's help -- meanwhile the Greffs had arrived too, since the goose would serve six -- and after wolfing down the goose, stuffed with dried fruit, masterfully prepared by Matzerath, during dessert -- plums and pears -- desperately clutching a picture book Greff had added to my other four, after soup, goose, red cabbage, boiled potatoes, plums and pears, breathed on by a hot tile stove, we all sang -- and Oskar sang too -- a Christmas carol and another verse, Rejoice, and Ochristmastreeochristmastreehowlovelyarethy-ringbellsgotingalingaling-everyyearatchristmas and felt it was about time -- they were already ringing the bells outside -- I wanted my drum -- the drunken brass band that Meyn the musician had once belonged to blew so loud the icicles at the window ledge... but I wanted, and they weren't giving, weren't bringing out, Oscar "Yes!" the others "No!" -- and then I screamed, I hadn't screamed in a long time, I filed my voice to a sharp, glass-cutting instrument once more, after its long rest, and didn't slay vases, or beer glasses, or light bulbs, sliced open no showcase window, blinded no spectacles -- instead my vocal resentment was directed at all those resplendent glass balls, bells, silvery shining bubbles, and treetop baubles spreading good cheer on the Ochristmastree: ringadinging and tinalingalinging, the Christmas tree ornaments were shattered to dust. Quite superfluously, several dustpans' worth of pine needles detached themselves at the same time. But the candles went on burning, silent and holy, and Oskar still didn't get his drum.

-- Günter Grass, The Tin Drum, pp. 242-243 (translation by Breon Mitchell)
This book, usually cited as the most important German novel published since World War II, does not need my recommendation, but it has it anyway. It has an unusual history of readership, since it became widely known in an English translation, by Ralph Manheim, that straightened out some of its literary oddities. This new translation, commissioned in honor of the 50th anniversary of the novel's publication, is of interest even to those who have already read the book because it restores some of those oddities. (The text concludes with a fascinating note from the translator, Breon Mitchell, about the aims of translation.) One of the major themes of the book is the specter of the Black Cook, first introduced as the character in a folk song sung by children, Ist die schwarze Köchin da?, which becomes a frightening symbol of Death. The song is, one presumes, familiar enough to German readers, but for those unfamiliar with the song, and the children's game that goes with it, see the video embedded below.

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