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Günter Grass: Örtlich betäubt (Local Anaesthetic)

This was Grass’ first novel away from the setting of Danzig of his previous novels. It was also shorter than his previous novels. Because of this and its subject matter, it came in for criticism in Germany and has never been accepted as one of his best. Perhaps much of it being set in a dentist’s office does not help!

The book’s narrator is Starusch, an adult version of Störtebeker from Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum). Starusch is now a school teacher in Berlin. Starusch has tooth ache and is recommended a dentist by a colleague because he (the dentist) has a TV in his surgery. Apparently, this distraction helps ease the pain of treatment. Of course, with both the Novocain and the TV (not to mention the title of the book), it is clear that Grass is making the point that Germany has become anaesthetised. The dentist is an interesting character. He places great reliance on technology – again Grass is clearly showing the reliance on technology we all have but it is interesting that he uses a dentist to make this point – talks readily about a variety of subjects, including quoting Seneca, but is particularly interested in the technological development of Germany.

Apart from the dentist, the main plot line concerns Scherbaum, one of Starusch’s students and perhaps the brightest, who has decided to set alight his dog, Max, in front of the Hotel Kempinski on Berlin’s main street, to protest the Vietnam War, primarily under the influence of his girlfriend, an avowed Maoist. Grass, of course, has the current political situation hovering in the background. There is not only the Vietnam War but also the domestic situation, with Kiesinger, a former Nazi, as Chancellor. Thanks to the influence of Helmuth Hübener, Scherbaum sees the light, dumps his girlfriend and ends up getting anaesthetised by the dentist. It’s a bit stereotyped but Grass makes excellent use of the dentist and his various anaesthetics to make his point.

Publishing history

First published 1969 by Luchterhand
First English translation 1970 by Secker & Warburg
Translated by Ralph Manheim