Analysis of Günter Grass’s Local Anaesthetic

Eberhard Starusch has a number of problems: His teeth hurt, his dentist constantly quotes Seneca, and one of his students is trying to devise a dramatic protest against the Vietnam War. In this 1969 allegorical novel by the renowned German novelist Günter Grass (1927–2015), a middle-aged teacher in Berlin needs extensive dental work—a perennial motif in Grass’s novels, signifying the “postwar moral decay of the German nation.” Local Anaesthetic, told through the reminiscing and imagination of a teacher of German and history, is for the most part an inner monologue that is punctuated only occasionally by questions and commentary from the dentist. When his dentist places him in front of a television to distract him, Starusch projects his past and present onto the screen, resulting in a combination of reality, repressed memories, and fantasy that provide a mirror image of German history. At the same time that the television is functioning as a projection for Starusch’s musings, it is also reporting current events. In this manner Grass intermingles Germany’s Nazi past and the ensuing period under West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, as well as the student movements of the 1960s and in particular the student revolts of 1968.

The current events become increasingly more pertinent for Starusch once his favorite student, Philipp Scherbaum, decides to protest the American napalming of the Vietnamese by burning his dog, Max, on the Kurfurstendamm, a popular shopping boulevard. By setting Max on fi re, Scherbaum expects to shock Berliners out of their materialistic complacency. While he realizes that the awareness of human rights abuses taking place in Vietnam will not cause this realization to occur, sacrifi cing his dog will break through the people’s complacency because, as Scherbaum notes, “Berliners love dogs more than anything else.” Starusch knows from his own anarchistic days, however, that this reaction will get his student nowhere. Even the dentist notes that this event will simply offer a vicarious thrill equivalent to that of a Roman circus. In a discussion between Starusch and his dentist, the two agree that if one wants “to eliminate human failings . . . [one must] eliminate man.”

In this work, the leftist students dismiss the older generation and anyone else who does not share their point of view. Ironically, they exhibit the same type of idealism, self-righteousness, and narrow-mindedness they criticize in their elders. Scherbaum seems to recognize this contradiction on some level as he notes that the protest culture, by using popular media such as posters and pop music, has no true impact but “only lulls people to sleep.” Given this potential for a sedating effect, this protest culture runs the risk, as literary critic Cloe Paver notes, “of gratifying unconscious emotional needs instead of awakening critical faculties, and thus of becoming a substitute for action, rather than inspiring action.” The fascinating and exciting allure of this movement as well as its potential to initiate a loss of restraint reminds Starusch of the heightened emotions that infected those caught up in the thrill of the Nazi rallies. It is particularly through the teacher Irmgard Seifert that Grass portrays the initial seductive quality of the Nazi assemblies, the ability to forget or repress this earlier fervor after the war, and fi nally the confronting of one’s past and its accompanying shame that must be resolved.

Grass employs a course of dental treatment as a metaphor for political activism and protest. Activism, like a local anaesthetic, only works for a short amount of time. Unless the root problem is addressed and eliminated, the pain will always return. The healing is thus a process of self-discovery that Germany must undergo, and in so doing a Vergangenheitsbewältigung—a coming to terms with its past—must be endured in order to move into the future free of pain.

Analysis of Günter Grass’s Novels

Friedrichsmeyer, Erhard. “The Dogmatism of Pain: Local Anaesthetic.” Dimension 36–49. Paver, Cloe E. M. “Lois Lane, Donald Duck and Joan Baez: Popular Culture and Protest Culture in Günter Grass’s örtlich betäubt.” German Life & Letters 50, no. 1: 53–64.
Taberner, Stuart. “Feigning the Anaesthetisation of Literary Inventiveness: Günter Grass’s örtlich betäubt and the Public Responsibility of the Politically Engaged Author.” Forum for Modern Languages 34, no. 1: 69–81

Categories: German Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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