After the overwhelming critical success of the Danzig trilogy which includes The Tin Drum, Katz und Maus (1961; Cat and Mouse, 1963), and Hundejahre (1963; Dog Years, 1965), Local Anaesthetic was not warmly received. Many critics longed for the comic and grotesque aspects of the earlier works and their baroque richness of plot, detail, and characterization. Whereas the earlier novels shared the theme of “coming to terms with the past” and allowed themselves a narrative view from below or outside society, Local Anaesthetic focuses on the present and places its characters within society. It is a reflection of the author’s concern and involvement with contemporary political questions and is best read in conjunction with his nonfiction political essays and speeches of the same period, Uber das Selbstverstandliche (1968; partially translated in Speak Out!, 1969).
To be sure, Local Anaesthetic lacks the dynamism of the earlier works, but that is hardly surprising in a novel in which one of the dominant themes is expressed in the line: “Keep up your dialogue with the boy. Dialogue prevents action.” To a considerable degree, the turning away from an obsession with the past toward the concerns of the present can be seen not only as representing the political maturation of the author but also as coinciding with that of West Germany. While never losing sight of the fact that the seeds of the present lie in the past, Grass’s novel seriously and imaginatively considers difficult questions which, though clearly tied to the West Germany of the late 1960’s, are certain to remain of interest to a wider readership.