(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Flounder examines the issues inherent in the age-old war between the sexes. Written in the first person, the novel is a long chronicle in which every aspect of this war is examined by the author. Beginning with the neolithic period and proceeding through modern times, Günter Grass leaves no feminist issue unchallenged, no sexist stone unturned. Even the way in which the chapters are arranged (in nine monthly headings signifying the pregnancy of the narrator’s current wife, Ilsebill) indicates that the war has not abated, that it will continue long after the novel has finished.

The novel begins in the neolithic period, with the catching of a flounder by a primitive fisherman. This flatfish is no ordinary fish but a magical entity who teaches the primitive fisherman many things: how to count on his fingers, how to explore outside his local domain, and how to subjugate the womenfolk of his clan.

The neolithic fisherman, the reader is informed, is only one of the many lives of the narrator. In fact, by the end of the novel, this same narrator has passed through at least nine different periods of history under dozens of guises and occupations. Throughout this time, the Flounder remains his spiritual adviser, ready at any moment to be summoned from the sea for advice on how to run the world. This arrangement continues for centuries.

One day, in the late 1970’s, three feminists who are fishing in Lubeck Bay catch the Flounder—or rather, he allows himself to be caught. The fish, to their surprise, bluntly informs them that he is tired of serving men, that men have ruined the world. He now wants to help women run things. Women, he insists, are the only salvation of the world.

The feminists, instead of accepting his offer, decide that the Flounder should be tried as a criminal, a war criminal, for his many offenses against womankind. They drop him into a tank of seawater and ship him back to Berlin to stand trial before a tribunal of women.

The remainder of the book, its bulk, alternates between the many different lives of the narrator and the trial of the Flounder. The way in which the book moves between historical periods serves as a means of seeing both the past and the present. The narrator might talk about himself, for example, as a sword-smith in the Middle Ages and expound on what the relationship with his wife was like. Then he will invariably turn to the women’s tribunal to get the views of that time period. This device allows the narrator to view the historical differences and relationships between...

(The entire section is 1054 words.)