The Tin Drum

It is a little over half a century since Die Blechtrommel was published in Germany for the first time. Now that it is regarded as one of the most important works of postwar German literature, it is somewhat difficult to imagine why Günter Grass's debut novel scandalised critics when it first appeared. But at the time, the magical realist story of Oskar Matzerath - the lonely boy who refuses to grow, communicates through his tin drum, imagines himself as both Jesus and the devil, and ends up in a mental institution from where he narrates his life and also, obliquely, Germany's 20th-century history - was regarded as both blasphemous and pornographic.

Ralph Manheim's translation of the novel, which was published a couple of years after it came out in Germany, contributed to its huge international success. But although this remained the definitive translation for nearly 50 years, Grass has wanted a new English version since the 1970s. At a series of meetings in his home town of Gdansk, Grass went through Die Blechtrommel page by page with a dozen or so translators from around the world, working on new versions for the 50th anniversary.

The new translation by Breon Mitchell sticks much more closely to the original text than Manheim's and emulates some of the German linguistic traits that Grass uses. Manheim had a tendency to break up the author's long, complex segments - some of which go on for a page or more - into shorter, simpler sentences. Although this made the text more accessible, it lost something of the rhythm of the original. Mitchell also neologises as Grass does in German. Thus "zersingen" - the verb Grass uses to describe the way Matzerath shatters glass with his voice - becomes "singshatter", instead of Manheim's "sing to pieces".

Equally significantly, Mitchell aims to convey the way the language of the original text mimics Oskar's drum. In one case, Manheim simply left out an apparently incoherent series of words at the beginning of a chapter in which Oskar describes his ability to "zurücktrommeln", or "drum up the past". Mitchell restores these words, translated as "Built up, chopped down, wiped out, hauled back, dismembered, remembered", which suggest the manipulation of memory and convey the percussive effect of the original text.

This new version of The Tin Drum thus retains more of the strangeness of the original text. Mitchell does particularly well in the poetic passages in which Oskar plays with words or components of words. One of the most extraordinary examples of this is in the chapter entitled "Faith Hope Love", with which the first part of the novel climaxes. This - the chapter in which Oskar experiences Kristallnacht, during which the toyshop where he gets his drums is destroyed and its Jewish owner kills himself - remains one of the most powerful sections of the novel.

In 1959, when Die Blechtrommel was first published, Germany had barely begun the long pro­cess of what Adorno called "working through the past". The almost complete silence about the Nazi era in West Germany during the 1950s would not be broken until the following decade, principally by events such as the Auschwitz Trials, but also by works of literature such as Grass's - so much so, that the writer came almost to embody memory in Germany.

Given this role, it was a huge shock when it emerged in 2006 that Grass had kept silent about his own membership of the Waffen SS as a 17-year-old boy at the end of the Second World War. The revelation - made in Grass's memoir Peeling the Onion, which ends with the publication of The Tin Drum - has somewhat undermined his position as his country's historical conscience. And yet, as this new translation of Die Blechtrommel reminds us, Grass retains his huge stature as a novelist.

Hans Kundnani's book "Utopia or Auschwitz: Germany's 1968 Generation and the Holocaust" is published by C Hurst & Co (£16.99)

The Tin Drum
Günter Grass, translated by Breon Mitchell
Harvill Secker, 592pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street