Books

Petronius would have been proud

THE FLOUNDER by Günter Grass

John Bentley Mays December 4 1978
Books

Petronius would have been proud

THE FLOUNDER by Günter Grass

John Bentley Mays December 4 1978

Petronius would have been proud

BOOKS

THE FLOUNDER by Günter Grass (Longman Canada, $15.50)

Five years before turning 50, Günter Grass vowed to give himself a big feast of a book for his birthday. And here it is: a teeming bouillabaisse,

chock-full of chunks of history, ranging from the Stone Age to the 20th century, hacked off the bone with a dull knife. He has tossed in scraps and snips of anthropology, geography and politics, and handfuls of gritty names and dates. To thicken the stew, he has spooned in hundreds of naughty bits—his own and everybody else’s—and poured over the whole mess a glutinous sauce diable of locker-room humor. The result is a 200,000-word flop, in which the raunch doesn’t work and the highfalutin philosophy sinks without a trace.

He has excerpted books of all kinds, then tumbled them into a heap. The binder is supposed to be the autobiography of the narrator himself, a single story retold nine times or so over a period of thousands of years; his various reincarnations include Stone Age love-slave, Iron Age fisherman, medieval monk, Napoleonic governor, as well as some other careers. The tale can’t hold the book together simply because Grass isn’t interested in it, any more than he’s interested in the weighty historical chunks. No—he’s a man with a Message. Which is: how nice it would have been had men just stayed back in the Stone Age, sucking their mates’ breasts “until they”—the men, that is— “sweated out their obsessions, stopped

fidgeting, and became sleepily still, available for just about anything.”

In the narrator’s mythology, the Fall of Man was caused by a pesky talking Flounder who taught men to devote themselves “with masculine high pressure to men’s business,” and thereby get themselves banished from that Paradise of “historyless, matriarchal everloving care.” And, as if our present state weren’t sorry enough, the Flounder continues to surface throughout history, reminding men to stay on top of women—in every way.

For the narrator, however, the second best thing to being in Paradise is having a nice cook to take care of him, and he manages to find one in most ages. But not all: sometimes women forget to be plump and comfy, and turn themselves into jack-booted, butch feminists—the real villains of Grass’s book. They and the Flounder deserve one another.

Despite some nice recipes for cooking eels and herrings, and some funny pages on the subject of feces, this is a very silly book. Few readers will be able to get through its 547 pages of insipid nostalgia and stomach-turning breast fantasies without several slugs of Pepto Bismol. Some birthday present: a $15.50 heartburn. John Bentley Mays