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April 15, 1979 - Image 17

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The Michigan Daily, 1979-04-15
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Page 6-Sunday, April 15, 1979-The Michigan Daily

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The Michigan Daily--Sunda)

The Flounder': Great Grass

Fringe political groups pers

By Gunter Grass
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
Inc., $12.00, 547 pp.
E VERY SO OFTEN one of the ma-
1 jor publishing houses announcees
the arrival of a new "major novel," im-
ply ng a work of length and im-
port-books such as Bellow's Hum-
boldt's Gift, Fowles' Daniel Martin, or
John Irving's recent The World Accor-
ding to Garp. All these novels tip the
scales at more than 400 pages, and
each, in its way, is a fine work:
Bellow's for its tremendous richness of
character and incident; Fowles' for its
Gunter Grass
The Flounder
urbane humanism; and Irving's for its
self-contained short-stories. Yet all
three also share an ailment prevalent
among modern novels: they boast ex-
cessive amounts of undigested tangen-
tial material, betraying an underlying
lack of structure.
These books, with their various
digressions and philosophical discour-
ses, are somewhat picaresque in their
jumps from episode to episode, but ask
the reader to arrive at some very
significant and precise con-
clusions-conclusions that demand a
unified progression and foundation. It
can be argued that this unity is there in
subtle modulations of character and
ton a, but none of these novels leave the
re ,der with a sense of closure justifying
all the mater-ial included. What we are
often left with is a book resembling an
English garden; there is a great deal of
haphazard beauty, but very little
Last year a novel from Germany first
appeared in English translation.
Reading Gt rater Grass' The Flounder,
one thanks t se heavens for the Teutonic
penchant foi order: this book brilliantly
eludes the cc nmon pitfalls of the major
modern nove . It is a brilliantly unified
work, dazzlir gly imaginative, wickedly
funny, utterly enjoyable-in -short,
deserving of !very two- or three-word
epitaph one .sees emblazoned on the
covers of all those other Major Novels.
Andrew Kurtzman is a junior in
'he Honors English program.

By Andrew Kurtzman

It's a huge book - more than 500
pages-and full of diversity, but there is
not a turn of phrase or narrative that
does not fit perfectly into the architec-
ture of Grass' story. The Flounder
takes a lot of risks, failing only once,
and in every sense establishes Gunter
Grass as one of the best and most
audacious novelists of our time.
Grass' story finds its root in the old
German folk tale of the fisherman, his
wife, and the talking fish. Very briefly,
a fisherman nets a fish, who, in return
for his freedom, promises the fisher-
man any wishes he might have. The
fisherman runs home to tell his wife,
who sends the hapless angler back to
the fish with ever increasing wishes un-
til, finally, when she requests a sort of
godhead, the fish rebels and sends the
couple crashing back to poverty.
flounder during the neolithic age
and the fish cheerily greets him: "Good
afternoon, my son!" The narrator
reports as follows:
From the start his know-it-all superiority
made him garrulous despite his categorical
finalities . . . His purpose, he said, had been
to join conversation with me. He had not
been motivated by foolish (or did he already
say '"feminine?'') curiosity, but by the well-
matured decision of a nasculine will. There
existed, so he said, certain information poin-
ting beyond the neolithic horizon, and he, the
sapient Flounder, wished to communicate
this information to me, the dull witted fisher,
kept in a state of infantilihm by total female
Thus begins the history of the floun-
der's advocacy of the male cause, a tale
Grass narrates from its neolithic
origins in a stable matriarchy until
today. The narrator tells his tales by
way of passing the time with his
pregnant wife (hence the book is
divided into nine "Months" rather than
conventional chapters), claiming that
he has been alive since that neolithic
time, inhabiting a number of bodies and
personalities along the way. -
The story is further broken down in
terms of his history-a long involvement
with cooks, either as wives or as
mistresses. The book is packed with
culinary chatter. Additionally, there
are long passages dealing with the
writing of the book itself. All of this is
framed within a larger story involving
the flounder's trial, for at the very
beginning of the book the archetypal
male chauvinist allows himself to be
captured by three present-day women
who immediately put him on trial for
crimes against womankind.
With fantastic skill and not a little
magic, Grass takes fish, politics, food,
women's rights, love, history, a trial, a
pregnancy, and concocts a beautifully
unified literary language. At the very
crudest level there are- obvious com-
binations: Agnes, the narrator's

mistress in the early 19th century says,
... speaking of Napoleon, I wouldn't
keep no soup warm for that man."
Later, a club of potential suicides in the
20th century gathers once a week to im-
bibe a life-giving soup of boiled
hangman's noose.
Great historical figures such as
Frederick the Great visit humble cooks
to establish the potato as a staple in
Germany. But there is a subtle
mutation of menu throughout the book,
a growing saavy and culinary
philosophy that makes for even greater
unity. History is viewed through the
eyes of its participants, as evidenced in
the flounder's trial, and as grist for the
writer's typewriter. The rights of
women are hashed out with utter
seriousness at the trial of a fish: "It's
too kind of you," says the high female
judge to the flounder, "to grant,
perhaps not to women in general but at
least to this particular Agnes, a further
function, in addition to those of cook
and bed warmer: so now she's entitled
to serve as a Muse, to give little kisses,
to fertilize the moist warm soil. . ."
These mock Watergate-like
proceedings, conducted with great
solemnity, this fairytale language
where human events are moved by a
strange cheese called "glumse"-all
become utterly plausible, even logical,
because Grass sticks heroically to his
guns. In the context of the trial's
calculated lunacy it is perfectly
plausible for the tribunal to abjure the

narrator, their creator: "What is he,
anyway? A writer looking for material.
Trying to ingratiate himself, to latch
on, to grind literature out of his com-
plexes, maybe talk us into settling for
special allotments for housewives."
There is great logic and hilarious
ludicrousness in the flounder's
suggestion that mankind phase itself
out: "Once again, at long last, rivers
would be allowed to overflow their
banks. Once again the oceans would
breathe easy. I'm saying this off the
cuff, apart from my legend, speaking
as a plain fish."
Ralph Manheim, the translater of
this volume. He carefully maintains the
Germanic constructions which, when
translated, add a special savor to the
words. He also knows when and how to
be utterly idiomatic in English. The ex-
tended sentences, stretched clauses,
and delayed verbs native to the Ger-
man tongue here add fresh bite to the
English language. Never does Grass-
via-Manheim fall in the cozy trap of
lazy prose.
The book has a.couple of failings, one
minor and the other glaring. First, upon
occasion, Grass goes overboard with a
huge one-sentence paragraph about
love or India. On the other hand, com-
pared to the giant amounts of flab one
finds in other novels these lapses are
fairly negligible. More serious is his
constant interpolation of poetry ("be-
tween separate beds/at shouting dis-
tance/the sexes are being dis-
cussed . . ."). After going through the
effort of creating a prose language that
See FLOUNDER, Page 8

OST STUDENTS at this Uni-
vriywill tell you that it's
virtually impossible to get
through one day without running into
some stranger wearing several
propagada buttons and shouting unin-
telligible rhetoric to oblivious passer-
sby. And whether they're handing out
political leaflets or speaking through
bullhorns, these mysterious advocates
of sundry fringe causes often appear to
be doing nothing more than wasting
their precious time. Those who preach
find the most common result is a sore
throat, and those who pass out
literature are generally to blame for
any overstuffed litter baskets within 20
yards of them.
Like many involved with student
government, these campus advocates
are "activists." But their causes are
generally not restricted to Ann Arbor or
the University; they have visionsnfor
the world, not just for Ann Arbor, and
prefer not to be confined to the campus
governing system.
Steve Yokich, a first-year law student
who heads the Ann Arbor chapter of
Americans for Democratic Action
(ADA), one of the newer factions on
campus, admits that the majority of
people don't always take an interest in
the issues he deems important. But he
sees a potential for strong impact from
his organization.
"When you consider all the people in
the University," says Yokich, "how
many people go through the fishbowl
everyday, you know, thousands. If you
can get just 20 or 30 to look at your stuff,
then you've made a real contribution. If
you can get ten to write in to their
congressman, that could cause an im-
pact. If a congressman gets ten letters
on an issue, he thinks it's the hottest
issue since creation."
Student reaction to these groups is
varied. There are those who view the
activists as "nagging," while others
seem strongly gratified by their
presence. Many, such as engineering
sophomore William Richart, rarely pay
attention to workers who publicly jet-
tison verbal or written information.
"I'm usually on my way to class," says
Richart. "They're approaching me at a
bad time for me to listen to them."
Another common reaction is to pick
up leaflets automatically. "I always
pick up their information," says LSA
senior Tom Smitka. "I usually don't
pay as much attention to who's saying
it, as much as what they are saying."
If the faces of many activists are
familiar to students, it's only because
they've been handing out pamphlets
calling for a new international order for
years. These groups espouse a broad
range of political ideologies, but they
have one thing in common: they must
struggle to keep alive on campus. Most
of them almost seem to enjoy it that
way, in view of the relentless fervor
with which they politicize. In some
cases, school and even plans for post-
graduation jobs are subordinated by
political beliefs.
Don Alexander, a 24-year-old LSA
senior, is an active member of the
Revolutionary Communist Youth
Brigade (RCYB). His thin frame is top-
ped by a black afro haircut, on which he
often mounts a dark cap decorated with
an RCYB button. Alexander, who hails
from Grosse Pointe, says he became in-
terested in world politics at an early
age: "I was pretty young during the
Mitch Cantor covers the Univer-
sity administration for the Daily.. 4,

whole episode of the sixties. Even at
that time, it was pretty hard not to think
about the tremendous events going on
in the world. The Black Liberation
movement had a real impact, in terms
of revolutionizing people's thinking,
and that was precisely the impact that
their activities had on me."
B Y THE LATE sixties, the gaunt
activist says he began to realize
'there was a whole system

By Mitch Cantor

Spartacus Youth League (SYL)
mnember Bruce Richard has searched
for several years in order to find a
political party he felt he could support.
After supporting McGovern in '72,
joining the Socialist Party, and running
for City Council under their platform,
Richard says he found his perfect party
in the SYL.
The SYL preaches a program of doc-
trinaire socialism. Richard, a third-
year law student, says he expects

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Student activists spend extensive time and energy imparting their views to the student body, many1

responsible" for the Vietnam War,
"that what our rulers had been telling
us about Vietnam was a bunch of lies,
that it was correct to support the
The six RCYB members on campus
speak, circulate literature, and do just
about anything they can "to mobilize
students around these different issues
that are taking place, to take a
revolutionary stand ... to see that the
future of moving the society forward
lies with the working class, to pick up
the Revolution as a conscious task. So
we see it as being a thing of organizing
students to take up the battles that are
going now, that provide the seeds for
that kind of revolutionary upsurge in
the future," claims Alexander.
While Alexander realizes that Ann
Arbor's RCYB, which has existed in one
form or another for six years, is far
from the most popular group on cam-
pus, he insists the members of his
organization are much like those in any
other student group.
"We're ordinary people that, through
a variety of circumstances, have come
to see that the System needs to be over-
thrown," says Alexander. "And we're
not special. We didn't have some sort of
Freudian complex when we were
young, or anything ike-that:". -

several important movements by
workers (notably crippling strikes) to
shock the capitalist world within the
next two to five years. In lieu of this, he
considers it the party's responsibility to
take advantage of them.
"There really isn't the kind of mass
upheaval which will bring masses of
workers into the streets," says
Richard, "so the task right now is to
win a few militants who will be in a
position later, when those upsurges do
come, to take a leadership role in
them." Richard doesn't seem very op-
timistic about the achievement of the
-SYL's goals, even though he appears
willing to take any measures to reach
Richard was raised in a middle-class
family, and has lived in Michigan most
of his life. He claims his "search" for a
political party to represent him came
as a result of a rude awakening. "You
realize that students have a choice," he
says. "They can either accept the
training they're being given to even-
tually be the lieutenants of the
capitalists and eat the crumbs off their
tables, or they can fight for social
"In my case," he continues, "I was a
law student. I worked at various legal
=,b. Jduring. .roy vacations, which

"How can
Bob Marsh,
place, every
some of thes
to get out of
one of the fir
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know the twc
Marsh, w
Labor Party
says that ev
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says. "I dor
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See 1

Gun ter Grass.

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