Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 913
As the forty-year-old bachelor Eberhard Starusch undergoes protracted treatment for a protruding lower jaw, he uses the sessions not only to deal with his dental problems but also to address a variety of present and past issues which are exceedingly painful to him. While part of the narrative consists of a straightforward reconstruction of his dialogues with the dentist, it is Starusch’s psychic projections of present and past events onto the screen of the television set which the dentist uses to distract his patients that lend the novel its characteristic filmic quality and surrealistic fluidity. Reality and fantasy intertwine as Starusch confronts the actual and the repressed, the pains of the present and the psychic wounds of the past, which intersect with and reflect German history and the contemporary political climate.
Starusch is a man profoundly unhappy with his life and plagued by festering psychic sores caused by past failures, the chief of which being the engagement broken off several years before by his fiancee, Sieglinde Krings. Although he feigns indifference, Starusch was profoundly angered and humiliated by Sieglinde’s rejection of him in favor of another man, and that anger now expresses itself in the form of murderous fantasies projected onto the blank television screen. Horrified by Starusch’s violent visions, the dentist provides the metaphorical link between the external action (the cleansing of Starusch’s teeth) and the psychic projections on the screen when he states:Your tartar is your calcified hate. Not only the microflora in your oral cavity, but also your muddled thoughts, your obstinate squinting backward, the way you regress when you mean to progress, in other words, the tendency of your diseased gums to form germ-catching pockets, all that—the sum of dental picture and psyche—betrays you: stored up violence, murderous designs.
The theme of compensatory violence and obsession with past failures is also represented in the figure of Sieglinde Krings’s father. Modeled after the historical Field Marshall Schorner, Krings was one of Adolf Hitler’s most stubborn generals, always willing to fight to his last man but never willing to admit error or defeat. Upon his return from Russian captivity in 1955, General Krings spends most of his time staging mock warfare in a sandbox, a vain attempt to win lost battles. The introduction of General Krings into his novel is a clear example of Günter Grass’s intent to link the personal biography of his fictional protagonist with the broader context of German history and suggests that Starusch’s psychological mechanism of converting “calcified hatred” caused by past failures into fantasies of violent revenge might provide a key to the understanding of twentieth century German history. Would history have been changed, Starusch muses, if Hitler had not been denied admission to the Viennese Art Academy?
Among his present concerns, Starusch is most troubled, apart from his teeth, by the plans of his favorite student, Philipp Scherbaum, to douse his dog, Max, with gasoline and set him ablaze in front of the cake-munching ladies in Kempinski’s restaurant on Berlin’s fashionable Kurfurstendamm Street. Scherbaum wants to shock them into understanding the effects of napalm on living beings. He has already rejected the notion of self-immolation as ineffective; the sensibilities of the Berliners to human suffering have been dulled, but their love of dogs is legendary.
Although at Scherbaum’s present age of seventeen Starusch was himself the leader of an anarchist youth gang in wartime Danzig—familiar to readers of Grass’s Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1961) as the “Dusters”—experience and “the sadness of [his] better knowledge” have turned him into an opponent of genuine violence (his harmless fantasies in the dental chair notwithstanding). A reformist rather than a revolutionary, Starusch is determined to dissuade Scherbaum from an act which he views as futile and potentially self-destructive, but at the same time he admires his student’s unspoiled idealism and is not at all comfortable in disabusing him of it.
Scherbaum is no ideologue driven by a romanticized vision of the possibilities of revolutionary action but rather “a thin-skinned kid who feels the wrongs of the world, not only when they’re close to him, but also when they’re far away.” He is not the least bit interested in explaining the war in Vietnam in ideological terms. Instead, “he sees human beings burning and he’s made up his mind to do something about it.” Though Scherbaum’s radical girlfriend, Vero Lewand, accuses Starusch of having the effect of a “reactionary tranquilizer” on him, it is more accurate to view him as a kind of local anaesthetic, easing the pain while attempting to find a more appropriate response to its cause. With the help of the dentist and to the profound disappointment of Irmgard Seifert, who sees Scherbaum’s proposed action as redemption for the moral failures of her own youth, Scherbaum eventually drops his plan to burn his dog and takes on the editorship of the school newspaper instead. Though his editorials cannot cure the world’s ills in the short run, it is possible that they will contribute to the process of gradual reform. Still uncomfortable with the idea that this may indeed be all that is possible, Starusch notes in a kind of afterward from the perspective of two years later that he feels a fresh growth of tartar (hate, anger, frustration) on his teeth, and the novel concludes with the observation: “There will always be pain.”