Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1581
The narrator, a writer. He has lived many lives in the past, in particular as the husbands or lovers of a series of cooks, whose lives mirror important points in human history. The relationships between the narrator and these women illustrate the relationship between the sexes, in which men strive for dominance but remain subject to the will and cooking skill of women. The narrator, in his present life, is the weak and philandering husband of the pregnant harridan Ilsebill. He attempts to gratify himself sexually with the members of the Feminist Revolutionary Tribunal and the last two cooks, Sibylle Miehlau and Maria Kucorra, but in actuality he is used by them.
Ilsebill, the narrator’s wife. She advances through nine months of pregnancy during the book, finally delivering a daughter near the conclusion. She is named Ilsebill for the wife in the Brothers Grimm tale “The Fisherman and His Wife.” The narrator’s wife, who like the fisherman’s wife always wants more, is an insatiable virago.
The Flounder, a seemingly omniscient godlike entity, actually a turbot with bony, pebblelike bumps. The Flounder allows himself to be caught by a fisherman in the neolithic period. He wishes to serve as a guide and adviser to weak males to enable them to overcome matriarchy and to develop their assertive, dominating, and culture-producing, if destructive, traits. The Flounder, who is released, can be summoned readily and repeatedly comes back to give the narrator, in his many existences as generalized “man,” advice on how to deal with women. Despairing of progressively impotent man as an agent of progress, the Flounder finally allows himself to be caught by three radical feminists, Sieglinde “Siggie” Hunyscha, Susanne “Maxie” Maxen, and Franziska “Frankie” Ludkowiak. Although he offers to serve as an adviser to women, they choose to place him on trial for his crimes against women. During the course of the trial before the Women’s Revolutionary Tribunal in Berlin, the story of the eleven cooks, embodying the history of male dominance and the hidden contributions of women, is told. The Flounder repents of his wrongdoing and agrees to serve as adviser to women. Although he is found guilty of crimes against women, he is, to the disgust of the Revolutionary Party, allowed to live. After being forced to witness a banquet in which fellow flounders are consumed, he is released into the Baltic Sea.
Awa, an enormously fat, three-breasted living Baltic fertility goddess from the Stone Age. She is the first cook. She and the women keep the men satisfied and subservient by suckling them. She forbids the narrator, then called Edek, to use her gift of fire to smelt metal as the Flounder had taught him or to count above 111, the number of her dimples. When she dies, Awa, as she had instructed, is stuffed, roasted, and eaten.
Wigga, the Iron Age cook. When she forbids a certain hallucinogen, dream wurzel, men lose their innocence. The unsuckled men become restive and resent the farming initiated by Wigga. She orders her people to stay close to the source of fish for her soups and not to follow the wandering Germanic hordes. Although she rails against the fire-eating Goths, she makes the men gather the iron pots that they discard when they move on. She dies of blood poisoning when she cuts herself on a rusty roasting spit left behind by the Goths.
Mestwina, a cook and priestess for the Pomeranian people living in the Wicker Bastion on Fisherman’s Island, later incorporated into Danzig. Through her cooking, she wins the heart of Bishop Adalbert of Prague, who had come to practice proselytizing on the Pomeranians before turning to the more difficult Prussians. She accidentally drops a string of amber beads into his fish soup. They dissolve, transforming the dish into a pagan love potion. After Adalbert orders the destruction of the Pomeranians’ fish head offerings to the Flounder god, Ryb, she kills her lover with a cast-iron spoon. She is then baptized by force and beheaded. Her death brings an end to matriarchy.
Dorothea Swarze, of Montau, the beautifully ethereal wife of the master sword maker Albrecht Slichting. This frigid fourth cook, who extends the Lenten fare throughout the year, lusts for Jesus. Among the living, however, she can relate only to beggars and lepers, and she neglects her children and husband. After an enlightening encounter with the Flounder, she chooses, in her quest for freedom, to be walled up in a small cell in the Marienwerder Cathedral, where she eventually dies.
Margarete Rusch (rewsh), or Fat Gret, the belly-laughing fifth cook, convent cook, and then cooking abbess of Saint Bridget’s whose irrepressible sexual appetite equals her love for food. She cultivates her abundant fat for the physical warmth she happily shares with men. She dismisses male controversies and endeavors with laughing disdain. After cooking the last meal for her father, blacksmith Peter Rusch, who had been involved in an artisanal conspiracy against the city government of Danzig, she dispatches the two men responsible for his death. She smothers Eberhard Ferber, the former patrician mayor, during lovemaking and feeds Abbot Jeschke to death. She dies a similar death, choking on a pike bone during a royal banquet.
Agnes Kurbiella (kewr-BEE-lah), the curly haired, childlike, and allegorically empty but warm Kashubian sixth cook, who never speaks but always smiles. At the age of thirteen, Agnes had been gang raped by the Swedish soldiers who had killed her parents during the Thirty Years’ War. She becomes cook, mother, inspiration, and sexual partner to the painter Anton Möller and the poet, diplomat, and spy Martin Opitz. Agnes gives her love unconditionally but never loses her memory and love for one of her Swedish assailants, Axel. After the death of Opitz, Agnes bears a daughter, Ursula, with whom, years later, she is burned at the stake in Moscow for witchcraft. After her death, Axel Ludstrom, the Swedish ambassador to the czar, orders the destruction of the file of Kurbiella, long suspected of being a Swedish agent.
Amanda Woyke (VOY-keh), a serf whose face has the beauty of a potato, with an earthy sheen and happy glow. She is the seventh cook, on the Royal Prussian State Farm at Zuckau, and popularizes the potato in Prussia. She bears seven daughters, fathered (between the campaigns of Frederick the Great’s wars) by August Romeike, a Prussian soldier. After the Seven Years’ War, Romeike is placed in charge of the farm, to the disgust of Amanda, who thinks that his administration is inefficient and counterproductive. After her first three daughters die of starvation, Amanda becomes totally committed to the promotion of the potato. She corresponds with Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, and through him her West Prussian potato soup becomes the foundation stone of the soup kitchen.
Sophie Rotzoll (ROHT-zohl), the eighth cook, a thin, angular, and boyish revolutionary. She remains a virgin. Her only love, Friedrich Bartholdy, a stuttering Danzig schoolboy, is condemned to death for a Jacobin conspiracy during the time of the French Revolution. The death sentence is commuted to life imprisonment, but despite all the pleading and cooking of Sophie, he is not released for thirty-eight years. Enraged at the failure of the Napoleonic governor of Danzig, Rapp, to release her beloved and enraged also at his sexual advances, Sophie prepares a dinner spiced with poisonous mushrooms. Rapp, warned by the Flounder, abstains, but the dinner leads to the death of his guests. Rapp does not punish Sophie, however, and eventually she is able to spend her virginal old age with the released but spent Friedrich.
Lena Stubbe (SHTUHB-eh), a dedicated Socialist, author of an unpublished “Proletarian Cookbook,” and long-suffering wife successively to two physically strong but emotionally weak anchor makers. The first is killed in the Franco-Prussian War; the second, as a middle-aged volunteer, in World War I. Lena cooks a soup flavored with a noose and nail that cures suicidal depression. After the death of her second wife-beating husband, she cooks at a series of soup kitchens until, at the age of ninety-three, she is sent to the Stutthoff concentration camp for her political comments. She cooks in the concentration camp until she is beaten to death for attempting to prevent the Kapos from stealing the prisoners’ meager rations.
Sibylle Miehlau (MEE-low), called Billy, the author’s former fiancée, a gorgeous lawyer. After cooking a Father’s Day picnic meal in 1962 for her three confused feminist and lesbian friends, Siggie, Maxie, and Frankie, who long to be male and assimilate the stereotypically worst male characteristics, Billy is gang raped by seven black-jacketed cyclists and then crushed by their motorcycles.
Maria Kucorra (KEW-kohr-ah), a beautiful, curly headed blonde distant cousin of the narrator who works at the canteen of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. Her fiancé, Jan Ludkowski, an employee of the shipyard’s publicity department, a trade unionist, and a member of the Communist Party, is shot in December, 1970, by the police of the Polish Workers’ Republic as he attempts to address striking workers in front of the shipyard. After his death, Maria bears twins, whom she names Mestwina and Damroka. At the end of the novel, after using the narrator for a very impersonal act of intercourse, she wades into the Baltic Sea and summons the Flounder, who counsels her.
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