(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 913 words.)