Characters Discussed

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Eberhard Starusch

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Eberhard Starusch (AY-behr-hahrt SHTAH-rewsh), nicknamed Hardy. He is the grown-up Störtebeker, a character from The Tin Drum (1961) who had been the wartime leader of a Danzig youth gang, the Dusters. Starusch, at the time of this story, is a forty-year-old teacher of German and history. Despite the aggressive look of his forcefully protruding chin, Starusch, who describes himself as a liberal Marxist, is inclined to compromise. His life is boring and uncommitted. He even avoids the painful consequences of dental work through frequent doses of anesthetic. While having bridgework done, he daydreams about his life and carries on a discussion with his dentist. Starusch claims to have been an engineer, who, when rejected by his fiancée, returned to school with money she gave him in compensation and earned a teacher’s certificate. He discusses with the dentist his attempt to dissuade his student, Philipp Scherbaum, from acting on his values in a provocative way.

The dentist

The dentist, a rationalist disciple of the Stoic Seneca who treats and counsels both Starusch and Philipp Scherbaum. He is a staunch supporter of science and reality. The anesthetizing television, which he uses to distract his patients, is the medium that prompts Starusch’s confused outpouring of present predicament, memory, and fantasy.

Philipp “Flip” Scherbaum

Philipp “Flip” Scherbaum (SHEHR-bowm), Starusch’s favorite student, a talented seventeen-year-old who is deeply concerned about acting in response to his values. An uncompromising idealist, Philipp is appalled by the napalming of civilians in Vietnam and decides to douse his dachshund, Max, with gasoline and to set him on fire in front of Hotel Kempinski’s café, which would be packed with cake-eating women. Starusch employs dialogue to delay and eventually to undermine Philipp’s action. Philipp begins to doubt his original impulse and to consider modifications and alternatives. To the disgust of his radical girlfriend, Vero Lewand, he eventually decides that the act, lacking spontaneity and purity, would be without value. He accepts the editorship of the school paper and more and more pursues a path of reformism and compromise.

Veronica (Vero) Lewand

Veronica (Vero) Lewand (LAY-vahnd), the thin and nasal seventeen-year-old radical student and girlfriend of Scherbaum. She continually wears absinthe-green tights. She has embraced extreme radicalism with religious fervor and proclaims it didactically through her nose. She denounces any form of reformism or compromise with reaction but is willing to use an offer of sex or threat of blackmail to deter Starusch from interfering in Scherbaum’s planned immolation of his dog.

Irmgard Seifert

Irmgard Seifert (ZI-fehrt), a thirty-nine-year-old fellow teacher and friend of Starusch who speaks in proclamations and is nicknamed the “arch angel.” Seifert, a self-righteous champion of civic morality and anti-authoritarianism, is overwhelmed with guilt and self-incrimination when she discovers letters she had written in 1945 as a seventeen-year-old squad leader in the Nazi League of German Girls. She had conveniently forgotten ordering teenage boys to defend their refugee camp to the death against the enemy and demanding that the Nazi authorities take action against a recalcitrant peasant. Totally self-absorbed, she, in her guilt, is unable to think or talk of anything or anyone else. Starusch, whom she regards as insufficiently sensitive and committed, eventually frees her of her guilt by burning the letters. Both partially overcome their lack of commitment and inaction by agreeing to a seemingly interminable engagement.

Sieglinde (Linde) Krings

Sieglinde (Linde) Krings (zeeh-LIHN-deh krihngz), Starusch’s thin, rigid, and goatlike former fiancée. Krings, whose father was a prisoner of war in Russia, is the apparent heiress to the Krings Cement Works. Starusch, a promising engineer, was hired by Linde and became her fiancée. She tired of his boring pedantry and ended the engagement after two and a half years. The dentist claims that the whole story of Linde is a fabrication. Undeterred, Starusch insists on the veracity of his version and cannot free himself from the memory of Linde, against whom he has concocted murderous fantasies of revenge.

Field Marshal General Ferdinand Krings

Field Marshal General Ferdinand Krings, a former commander on the Eastern Front who directed one losing action after another and won the hatred of his men by demanding futile resistance. He returned home after being released from a Russian prison camp in 1956. Having lost his own battles, he was determined to re-create battles lost by others and to win them himself. To his dismay, he was defeated by his daughter, Linde. Rather than shoot himself, he decided to go into politics.

Heinz Schlottau

Heinz Schlottau (hints SHLAHT-tow), an electrician at the Krings Cement Company who had served under Ferdinand Krings. He re-created, for Krings, the lay of battles in a sandbox with lights and switches. He traded information on Krings’ troop dispositions to Linde for sex. In Starusch’s fantasies, after Linde broke her engagement with Starusch, she married Schlottau. The dentist claims that Starusch, if he had ever been an engineer, had an affair with Schlottau’s wife, which wrecked his engagement and cost him his job.

The Characters

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Eberhard Starusch shares many biographical traits with the author, including date and place of birth, having experienced wartime captivity by the Americans, and an extended residence in the Rhineland following his release and before settling in West Berlin. More important, however, Starusch represents the political philosophy which Grass evolved in the late 1960’s, an extremely turbulent period in German politics. It is a philosophy of skepticism, commitment to the values of the Enlightenment, and such profound distrust of ideological systems and pat answers that, at least in Starusch’s case, it leads to a large measure of self-doubt and tends to express itself through an equivocating on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other-hand approach. Starusch recognizes that nothing is ever simple or unambiguous, that contradiction and paradox are inescapable and that progress must be painfully slow. Nevertheless, the former radical gang leader whom experience has transformed into a moderate, reflective, middle-aged schoolteacher “in spite of everything regards himself as progressive.”

If Starusch is plagued by doubts about the correctness of his moderately liberal views, the dentist represents complete faith in the power of reason, science, and technology to ameliorate, if not completely eliminate, man’s pain. He has no patience with action lacking a rational basis, calling it “active stupidity” and comparing it with “the precipitate extraction of teeth, this mania for creating gaps that no longer hurt.” Progress may come only at a snail’s pace, but it is inevitable if pursued rationally. Thus, he supports the more mature Starusch (even as he works on his “wisdom” teeth) in the latter’s resolve to dissuade Scherbaum from his plan.

On the other end of the political spectrum from the dentist is Vero Lewand. She represents the view popular in some quarters of West German society, particularly in the late 1960’s, that society is too corrupt to be reformed and must be violently swept aside before any real progress is possible, even if there is no clear vision of the society that will replace it. Vero is used more as a foil for Grass’s devastating criticism of the radical left than as a serious rival for Scherbaum’s political soul, however, for Scherbaum speaks contemptuously of Che Guevara as “Vero’s pin-up” and notes that “she reads Mao like my mother reads Rilke.”

Irmgard Seifert, dubbed “the arch angel” by her students, is obsessed with the guilt she incurred as a teenager when, as a leader in the Nazi league of German girls, she helped to instruct young boys in the use of bazookas and denounced a peasant for refusing to allow military maneuvers on his land. Unable to come to terms with her past in any constructive way, she fails to regard her pain as “an instrument of knowledge,” as Starusch does, and she looks upon Scherbaum as a personal savior while investing his proposed sacrifice with redemptive significance. Although she means to encourage him with her verbal self-flagellation, Seifert ultimately helps to dissuade Scherbaum from his plan. The dentist proves to be correct in observing to Starusch: “Your colleague’s enthusiasm will suggest to your student what kind of supporters his action is likely to attract. The more she raves the harder it will be for him to light a match.”

Philipp Scherbaum represents extreme sensitivity and political innocence. When Starusch takes him to visit the scene of his proposed action, Scherbaum reacts to the sight of the fur-coated women gorging themselves against the backdrop of Kurfurstendamm Street, with its materialistic excesses, by vomiting uncontrollably. The irony of Scherbaum’s plight is apparent in his comment: “I’m not supposed to throw up, they are, when Max burns.” His protest against insensitivity presupposes a degree of sensitivity similar to his own.

While Starusch admires Scherbaum’s purity and innocence, he realizes that they are possible only because his ideals have never been tested against reality. In the real world, matters are never simply black and white but shades of gray, and compromise, the loss of political innocence, is always required for progress to be made. Neither Grass nor Starusch appears entirely comfortable with this truth, but there is no help for it: “There will always be pain.”

Serving as mouthpieces for particular philosophical positions and attitudes and presented to the reader solely through the eyes of Starusch, a most unreliable narrator, the characters in Local Anaesthetic clearly do not appear as fully developed, realistic human beings. Through all Grass’s caricaturing and distortion, however, important archetypal patterns of human thought and experience are recognizable.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 39

Hayman, Ronald. Günter Grass, 1985.

Hollington, Michael. Günter Grass: The Writer in a Pluralist Society, 1980.

Lawson, Richard H. Günter Grass, 1984.

Miles, Keith. Günter Grass, 1975.

Thomas, Noel. The Narrative Works of Günter Grass: A Critical Interpretation, 1982.

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