Jul 28, 2021wyenotgo rated this title 5 out of 5 stars
The tradition of the drum song as a means of re-telling a saga has endured for centuries across many cultures. Its advantages are many, not least of which being that the drum speaks any number of languages, requires no translation; and surely Gdansk, given its tumultuous history of conquest, migration and pillage is one of the most polyglot of cities, a place where language defines, divides and confounds its residents. Every saga tend to be episodic in structure, a recital of experiences, often disconnected and ambiguous with respect to timeframes and plotline. But every saga must have a hero who, whether admirable or not, needs to be sui generis and memorable. Oskar certainly fills the bill.
Early on, it becomes apparent that Oskar is a classic “unreliable narrator”; he even goes so far as to address Oskar in the third person at times, thereby setting a bit of distance between himself and the protagonist; he views himself as a character in a drama of his own creation. Being an unreliable narrator has the distinct advantage of an absence of restraint, permitting him to construct such outrageously mesmerizing scenes as an impromptu mass orgy of infantile ecstasy in “The Onion Cellar” scene. Not to mention a macabre game of skat with the dying Kobyella in the Polish Post Office while under siege — ending with a deeply symbolic house of cards.
Atmosphere abounds: A succession of funerals, each unique but always causing the lugubrious mourner Leo Shugger to appear. A ghostly streetcar ride, the yellow lights of the car gleaming dully through drizzle and mist as it waits silently on a siding for the opposite car to pass. I was reminded of scenes from that brilliant film “The Third Man”.
And then there’s humor, some of it necessarily dark but elsewhere utterly hilarious. The tale of Niobe the wooden figurehead seized as a trophy of war and how she wreaked her vengeance upon her captors and keepers, easily stands as one of the most amusing stories I’ve ever read.
It’s easy to see why this book won the Nobel Prize for Gunter Grass. I’ve never read anything remotely like it. Is it overly long at nearly 600 pages? Perhaps, but there is so much to savor that it never felt like too much. Utterly unique and unforgettable.