And then the grim trumpeting of the young troopers began…. The drum was already in place. Supplely and tenderly I manipulated the sticks, imprinting an artful and joyous waltz rhythm upon it. Conjuring up Vienna and the Danube, I beat more and more loudly until the first and second bass drums of the troopers were drawn to my waltz and the kettledrums of the older boys took up my prelude with varying skill.
Oskar is a contrarion. Rejecting a future as a shop keeper in 1930′s Germany, he refuses to grow after age three, remaining exactly three feet high. Lack of growth is not lack of experience, however, as he lives through the periods of Hitler’s ascendancy, the war, and the hard years of the postwar period.
Now, having reached age 30 and resident in a mental hospital, he tells us his story. He recognizes the problem of creating an effective narrative.
You can begin a story in the middle and create confusion by striking out boldly, backward and forward. You can be modern, put aside all mention of time and distance and, when the whole thing is done, proclaim, or let someone else proclaim, that you have finally, at the last moment, solved the space-time problem. Or you can declare at the very start that it’s impossible to write a novel nowadays….
Oskar does not declare it is impossible, although he tells his story with the requisite amount of confusion, as well as circling back and looking forward. Whether we can believe what he says is an irrelevant question. We being given a shot of magical realism. All around Oskar people love, they betray, they suffer, they die, bombs fall, money is made and lost. It’s all real enough. Equally real is Oskar’s drum and its effect on those who hear it, responding to the drumbeats only a child is free to express.
It was three-year-old Oskar who picked up those drumsticks. I drummed my way back. I drummed up the world as a three-year-old sees it. And the first thing I did to these postwar humans incapable of a real orgy was to put a harness on them…. Soon I had their jaws handing down; they took each other by the hands, turned their toes in, and waited for me…. And I drummed up the wicked black Witch…; I made her rage through the Onion Cellar in all her gigantic coal-black frightfulness…; the ladies and gentlemen wept great round, childlike tears….
It’s not the snare drum or the bass drum or the kettledrum that Oskar plays. It is a child’s tin drum. It is too neat to say that only such a drum can portray the world of Germany during those years. Remember, Oskar deliberately remains a small child. Remember, he is certifiably insane. From a crazy child we hear the truth? Maybe, maybe not, but from the crazy child and his drum we certainly hear a compelling rhythm.