In 1899, Oskar’s Kashubian grandmother was sitting in a potato field, concealing the fugitive Joseph Koljaiczek under her wide skirts from pursuing constables. She thereby conceived Oskar’s mother, Agnes. In 1923, in the free city of Danzig, Agnes Koljaiczek married Alfred Matzerath, a citizen of the German Reich, and introduced him to her Polish cousin and lover, Jan Bronski, with whom he became fast friends. When Oskar was born, he soon showed himself to be an infant whose mental development was complete at birth.
Oskar was promised a drum for his third birthday. That drum, in its many atavistic recurrences, allowed him mutely to voice his protest against the meaninglessness of a world that formulated its destructive nonsense in empty language. The drum also allowed him to re-create the history of his consciousness and to recall in the varied music of the drum the rhythms of his mind’s apprehensions of the world around him. On his third birthday, Oskar, by a sheer act of will, decided to stop growing and to remain with his three-year-old body and his totally conscious mind for the rest of his life. As he later boasted, he remained from then on a precocious three-year-old in a world of adults who tower over him but are nevertheless inferior to him. While he was complete both inside and out, free from all necessity to grow, develop, and change as time passed, they continued to move toward old age and the grave.
Oskar’s refusal to grow, to measure his shadow by that of older persons, or to compete for the things they desire, was the assertion of his individuality against a world that, misconstruing him, tried to force him into an alien pattern. He was pleased when he discovered his ability to shatter glass with his voice, a talent that became not only a means of destruction, the venting of his hostility and outrage, but also an art whereby he could cut a neat hole in the window of a jewelry shop, through which Bronski—upon whom he heaps the filial affection he does not feel for his actual father—could snatch an expensive necklace for his beloved Agnes.
The later period of Oskar’s recorded existence was crammed with outlandish events. His mother, after witnessing a revolting scene of eels being extracted from the head of a dead horse submerged in water, perversely enforced a diet of fish on herself and died. Oskar became fascinated with the hieroglyphic scars on the massive back of his friend Herbert Truczinski, but Herbert, who worked as a Maritime Museum attendant, grew enamored of a ship’s wooden figurehead called Niobe.
In an attempt to make love to her, he was instead impaled to her by a double-edged ship’s axe. Jan Bronski was executed after an S.S. raid on the Polish post office where he had gone with Oskar. Oskar was overwhelmed with guilt after the death of his mother and that of the man who was probably his father. In one of the most superbly preposterous seduction scenes in literature, Oskar became the lover of Herbert’s youngest sister, Maria, and fathered her child. Maria then married Alfred Matzerath, and Oskar, having been as prodigious sexually as he was diminutive physically, turned to the ampler comforts of Lina Greff, whose latent homosexual husband, upon receiving a summons to appear in court on a morals charge, committed a fantastically elaborate, grotesque suicide. Oskar then joined Bebra’s troupe of entertainers and became the lover of the timeless Roswitha Raguna. When the Russians invaded Danzig, Alfred Matzerath, to conceal his affiliations, swallowed the Nazi party pin that Oskar had shoved into his hand and died. Again Oskar felt responsible for the death of a parent. Before long, against his will, he began to grow and to develop a hump. His postwar life took him to West Germany, where he was at various times a black marketeer, a model, and a nightclub entertainer, and eventually to Düsseldorf, where a destiny not his own caught up with him in the guise of the accusation that he killed Sister Dorothea Köngetter, the woman in the room next to his. The testimony of Vittlar, meant to save Oskar (although Vittlar had earlier hought him guilty), damned him. Oskar submitted to being judged insane and atoning for a guilt not strictly his, because to his own sense he was guilty by implication, an emblem of the modern world even in his isolation from it.