Before Günter Grass’s latest novel appeared in Germany in 1977, it had raised great expectation among critics and readers. The author had been at work on it for five years and had promised it for the celebration of his own fiftieth birthday in November of that year. Enough information about the book had been released to whet the appetite of the reading public. When it did appear, it without a doubt disappointed some, but also fascinated many others; and soon it was a best seller and a favorite topic of conversation among German readers.
In this novel Grass—if possible—outdoes himself in his natural propensity for shocking the bourgeoisie. All taboos are lifted. The novel is definitely bawdy, scurrilous, gross; and yet it is fascinating, captivating, and challenging. Unfortunately the novel loses some of its immediate appeal in the English translation. Grass’s language is earthy, sensual, and very rich. By his choice of words, the author plays on all the reader’s senses; he creates associations which are revealing and contribute to the understanding of the novel but which also may be strikingly funny. In this respect Grass’s imagination knows no limit, and there is little doubt that some of these delightful expressions are of Grass’s coinage. The visual image and the intimacy of embrace are heightened by substituting, for the common German word for “to embrace” umarmen (to put arms around), his own umbeinen (to put legs around). When the flounder is originally caught, he informs the fisherman-narrator in his early know-it-all manner that he has prepared himself for this event by learning the dialect of the Baltic coast. This, the flounder explains, was not too difficult since what is spoken there seems at best a wretched Gemaule (a low animalistic form of language; Maul is the mouth of an animal). In the English edition this word is translated as “stammering,” thus suggesting nothing but the most basic meaning. What has happened to the reader’s delight in seeing something expressed as it has never been expressed before? What has happened to the pun, the humorous twist, of hearing from the mouth of the high and mighty flounder, an animal, a term intended to show his disdain for the people of the region, but which at the same time makes them his equal?
All too often this richness of Grass’s language is lost, either as described above, or through a circumlocution which lacks all the newness and the pointed ready wit of the German original. A beautiful coinage like Fürund-fürsorge (für und für is of course “for ever and ever”; Fürsorge is “provision,” “care,” but also suggests social welfare) becomes “perpetuation of loving care,” and loses in English its stunning newness as well as its cynical implications. This also happens when very earthy expressions are translated by overly scientific terms, as, for example, “incarnation” for Fleischwerdung (becoming flesh). Here the associations with food, gluttony, and cooks and their dealings with flesh are lost. But even with these weaknesses of translation, The Flounder is a fascinating book which will intrigue the American reader as it does the German.
The novel gets its name from the legendary talking flounder which in the Grimm brothers’ tale is caught and released by a simple fisherman after it informs him that it can and will grant his wishes. When the fisherman’s wife, Ilsebill, hears of the catch, she sends her feeble husband back to the water to relay her ever-increasing demands: first for a cottage, then a castle, then a kingdom, and even elevation to the papacy. When she finally demands control of the sun and the moon, the flounder draws the line and returns the couple to the hovel they had lived in to begin with.
In the novel this misogynistic fairy tale is retold with variations and ostensible corrections. The flounder is caught again by three women and tried in a feminist court for having enticed the male to break away from matriarchy and advised him through the ages in his quest for superiority over women.
Parallel to and closely interwoven with the court action runs the narrator’s story told to his wife, Ilsebill, during the time of her pregnancy. The historic span of this narration reaches from the Neolithic age to our time—or, more specifically, to a 1970 dockworkers’ strike in the author’s native city of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland). Within this time frame the narrator moves with ease since he is equally well at home in all ages, having lived through them all in some male incarnation or other.
The incidents related always center around a woman, beginning with the arch-archetype of the matriarch, Awa, who has three breasts and who satisfies man’s every physical need, thus keeping him in the mental state of suckling infant. This prevents him from dreaming and yearning and robs him of the initiative to bring about change. It takes the flounder centuries of prodding before the man makes even as much as a quickly aborted attempt to free himself. He decides to...
(The entire section is 2094 words.)