CLASSICS CORNERSunday 8 November 2009 00.05 GMT
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
"Granted: I'm an inmate in a mental institution…" So begins Oskar Matzerath, narrator of Günter Grass's 1959 debut. With the help of one of his titular drums, Oskar recounts – not always reliably – the extraordinary events of his first 30 years: arresting his own physical development on his third birthday by throwing himself downs the stairs; "singshattering" glass with his otherworldly voice; impregnating his father's second wife; his key role in the deaths of his parents; finding independence as a stonemason, then later an artist's model and recording artist in the German postwar economic miracle.
Set primarily in Grass's native Danzig, the shadow of Nazism hangs heavy over the first two-thirds of the book, with Kristallnacht, the fall of Poland and ultimately the Soviet capture of the city all refracted through Oskar's eyes, as is the plight of German refugees struggling westwards ahead of the Red Army.
But it's Grass's dazzling use of language that sets The Tin Drum apart, as he spins a dense verbal web alive with wordplay and innovation. It's no coincidence that Oskar enjoys a stint with a jazz band, as there is an uninhibited, free-flowing musicality to the telling of his life story.
To mark The Tin Drum's 50th anniversary, its publishers around the world have commissioned a series of new translations, overseen by Grass himself. Breon Mitchell has reinstated much of the rhythm of the German original, as well as restoring some overtly sexual references thought too shocking for British audiences half a century ago. Given Grass's close involvement with this new translation, it is fair to call this the definitive version of arguably the most important German novel of the postwar era.