As a young man I tried to read Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum two times and failed miserably both the times. I was not intelligent enough to understand the subtle depths of a novel that narrated the story of a man who had chosen on his third birthday not to grow up any more. His toy tin drum became his best friend or his means of expressing his protest at the political chaos that surrounded him. Eventually he allows himself to be falsely convicted of the murder of the woman whom he loved and ends up in a mental asylum.
|The pipe was Grass's most abiding companion|
The novel put me off so much that I never read anything that Grass wrote. Yet I felt sad when allegations of Nazism and inveterate hypocrisy were levelled against him a decade back when he admitted in his autobiography that at the age of 17 he had been drafted into Hitler’s Waffen-SS towards the end of the second World War. He was accused of trying to sell more copies of the book by making the confession, accused of cynicism and hypocrisy and even of being a supporter of Nazism. I read more about him and learnt that none of the charges were deserved.
Grass passed away yesterday. I cannot write about his contribution to literature since I stayed away from his books. Yet I always felt drawn to him whenever I read something about him. I liked his refusal to commit himself to any ideology. I loved his scepticism. I loved the helpless yet raucous protest that his eccentric protagonist raised by hiding himself under a platform and subverting the Nazi band during a rally.
Grass was a rebel and his enfant terrible protagonist was an aesthetic expression of his own rebellion. It is the rebellion of a person who thinks differently from the vast majority of the people on the planet and hence is destined to remain an alien throughout his life. And that’s what Grass was. He was not a coward, however. He did not hide beneath any platform when Germany was unified in 1990, for example. When his compatriots celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall as “the greatest street party in the history of the world”, he remained sceptical and his reasoning was vindicated by the ruthless treatment meted out to many former East Germans.
Grass was credited with a profound understanding of public life. His views were solidly founded on clear ethical principles. Yet when he admitted honestly his erstwhile connections with the Nazis people including so-called intellectuals found it difficult to digest. This difficulty of the people to understand certain subtle truths about life is what made me write this.