Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

At the most fundamental level, Local Anaesthetic is a novel about political maturation, the growth through experience from a state of innocent idealism to a state of ambivalence and acceptance of limitations and contradictions. While the novel conveys a pervading sense of sadness over the fact that the gaining of wisdom involves a certain disillusionment, surrender of utopian ideals, and dulling of sensitivity, it concludes that there is no choice but to accept mankind’s inability to eliminate all the painful aspects of human existence. Ultimately, Grass would agree with the dentist that to eliminate human failings would be to eliminate man. Thus, the best that one can do to alleviate the pain is to continue the Sisyphus-like struggle for rational remedies (rather than “creating gaps that no longer hurt”) and to resort to the judicious use of “local anesthetics,” a term which obviously refers to both pharmacological and psychological painkillers within the context of the novel.

The extensive metaphorical use of the language of dentistry is one of the most striking stylistic features of Local Anaesthetic, and Starusch’s sessions in the dentist’s chair lend the novel its narrative backbone. From that center, however, the story wanders freely through the present and the past, the real and the imagined, as seen through the unreliable and sometimes confusing filter of Starusch’s conscious narration and subconscious thoughts. The theme of contradiction, paradox, and uncertainty finds its appropriate reflection in Grass’s liberal use of oxymoron as the most adequate linguistic representation of reality. Even the relationship between Starusch and Seifert, for example, is described as “distinguished by passionate moderation.” Thus the novel’s unconventional, nonlinear structure as well as its inconclusive, often contradictory language must be seen not as a flaw but as an inevitable consequence of the themes which Grass seeks to present.