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Always New Pains

Local Anaesthetic

by Günter Grass, translated by Ralph Manheim
Harcourt, Brace & World, 284 pp., $6.95

The line between what one most admires in Günter Grass’s writing and what one most resents is a remarkably fine one—and, it sometimes seems, a mobile one. His set pieces possess a Dickensian quality, but happily Dickens had not heard about motifs and symbols and other such-like devices for doubtfully expressing the perfectly expressible, whereas Grass, who is a bit of a pedagogue, has. There is something of Dürer, of Brueghel, and of Bosch in Grass’s make-up; there is also something of Mary McCarthy’s Mr. Converse, the creative writing teacher who went through his students’ work “putting in the symbols.” Looking back, you may find you remember most vividly some horrific-farcical scene which in the actual reading was spoiled for you by the author’s persistent nudging.

The density of Grass’s writing derives in part from his documentation—for instance, the naval expertise in Cat and Mouse and the faustball and ballet matter in Dog Years—though at times this documentation appears to be posing as a sort of autonomous allegory. In the new novel, Local Anaesthetic, there is a fair amount of technical information about dental methods through the ages, and about geology, and more than a fair amount (for its relevance is more dubious) about the manufacture of cement, “a commercially produced dusty powder. It is made by milling a slurry of limestone or marl, and clay, by crushing and grinding calcined cement clinker, by flotation and spray-drying in a rotary kiln….”

Much of this is interesting in itself and some of it is entertainingly presented, such as the lecture on various ways of cooking a literal goose given to a class of prisoners of war, their features “sharp-cut from undernourishment,” by a former hotel chef who is later to become a famous TV chef. Even so, there is a distinct discrepancy between the space this information occupies in the novel and its significant contribution to the novel. Generally in Dickens, documentation—what a person does for a living, where he lives, his favorite food and drink—is properly indistinguishable from characterization—what a person is. And there is less room for inoperative material in this relatively short novel than in the mammoth Dog Years. Dog Years was a notably energetic work: as in The Tin Drum, a lot was going on even if some of the activity remained enigmatic. By comparison—by comparison with other novels by Grass, for, when all is said, he is one of the very, very few authors whose next novel one has no intention of missing—Local Anaesthetic is a little on the tired side.

Admittedly, that is inherent in its theme: a wearied, worried bafflement, the apparent homelessness in the affluent state of passion and ideals, even their possible dangerousness. After all, an Economic Miracle isn’t as hateful as a Master Race in arms…. If the citizens have their eyes glued to the idiot-box, then what about the commandants of concentration camps who read Hölderlin or played Schubert sonatas? The plump ladies stuffing themselves with Torte in the Konditoreien along the Kurfürstendamm are not a pretty sight, but are they moral monsters? “Freedom of choice and second helpings. That’s what they mean by democracy,” says a thinskinned student. But the unnamed dentist who is “symbolically” the most important presence in the book says this:

Every day I have to combat injury to teeth caused or exacerbated by excessive cake consumption, by sweets as such. Nevertheless I refuse to demand the abolition of Kirsch Torte and hard candy. I can counsel moderation, repair the damage if it’s not too late, and warn against generalizations which give an illusion of great leaps forward but—ultimately—result in immobility.

Really Grass has been most courageous. He has turned from the meaty material of Nazism and postwar moral chaos to the stolidly triumphant bourgeoisie of today’s Bonn and West Berlin, from “de-demonizing” the Third Reich (if that was what he was up to, and personally I never found him that cozy) to Chancellor Kiesinger and the aforementioned undemonic Ku’damm cafés…. My God, it almost seems that, but for the Americans misbehaving in Vietnam, we could all live at ease with our consciences for the first time since…. Grass’s subject here is essentially this: what does St. George do when the local dragon is “relatively” not such a bad beast and the villagers are not especially terrorized by it? Yet dragons are dragons—and do we want St. George to lay aside his sword and let it rust?

At the beginning of Cat and Mouse, the narrator, Pilenz, was suffering from toothache. Teeth featured far more prominently in Dog Years: Amsel’s thirty-two teeth which were lost to the fists of the SA youths and then replaced by thirty-two gold teeth became a sort of referentless symbol or quasi-musical motif. One wondered rather about those teeth—a Jew who only lost his teeth? But in this new novel the narrator’s tooth trouble is exactly right, and his “setting,” in a dentist’s chair, superbly apt. Not merely because

   there was never yet philosopher
That could endure the toothache patiently,

and not only because “this pain…affects me, shakes me and lays me bare more than the photographed pain of this world, which for all its enormity is abstract because it doesn’t hit my nerve,” but also because whereas radical action has the effect of knocking teeth out, the dentist’s concern is to keep them in by conservative measures.

The patient, Starusch, is a highschool teacher under protracted treatment for a “congenital and therefore authentic” chopper bite caused by prognathism, and he is now forty years of age. At seventeen, under the name of Störtebeker, he had been leader of a juvenile gang operating in Danzig-West Prussia (“the so-called Dusters, a somewhat mysterious gang” whose mascot was a three-year-old child, we were told in Cat and Mouse), “a character with eyes very close together” and responsible for the desecration of church altars and possibly acts even more reprehensible or (considering the nature of the regime at the time) enterprising. “We were against everything and everybody.” But that was twenty-three years ago. And “a teacher is a reoriented teen-age gang leader who—if you don’t mind taking me as an example—has felt no other pain than toothache, toothache, for weeks….”

No doubt the present cannot be truly understood without some knowledge of the past. And Starusch’s pedagogic present would be a little uneventful by itself…. But fortunately the dentist has TV installed in his surgery, and the patient can watch either the regular programs or else the moving shadows of his own more exciting past, though whether real or imagined is hard to say. For Grass’s old deliberate uncertainty—perhaps it happened like this, but maybe it happened like that—is present here too, though (I found) less irritating than in Cat and Mouse, while less rewarding than in the mystery of Matern (was he a Nazi, or an anti-fascist, or both?) in Dog Years.

Starusch has pedagogic pains as well as dental ones, and they are chiefly provoked by his favorite pupil, Scherbaum, an engaging young man who ought to go far. The question at the moment is how to prevent him from going too far. Starusch hopes to channel his pupil’s idealistic ardor into the editorship of a run-down students’ newspaper: in Dots and Dashes Scherbaum can agitate for limited smoking rights in school (though himself a nonsmoker), maybe also fight for such other student demands as “the abolition of religious instruction and the introduction of regular courses in philosophy and sociology.” But Scherbaum plans to make people understand what napalm is like by dousing his pet dachshund, Max, with gasoline and setting fire to the animal in full view of the Kuchen-eating, Kiesinger-voting ladies in Kempinski’s on the Ku’damm. (It looks as though “K” is the magic-thematic letter here, perhaps in ironic allusion to the Nazi conception of the role of the female, “Kinder, Küche, Kirche.”)

This event—or, as it turns out, nonhappening—is central to the novel, and again one appreciates the justness of it. It is not solely an ingenious product of Grass’s black mischievousness, and the project has more point than could be seen in Matern’s poisoning of Harras, father of Hitler’s favorite dog, in Dog Years. The burning is intended as “enlightenment by demonstration”: Scherbaum would be quite ready to burn himself instead of his pet except that, Berliners being what they are, only a dog can secure the desired effect. (There follow statistics on dogs and dog-owners in West Berlin.) Indeed,

Nowadays you could crucify Christ and raise the cross on Kurfürstendamm, let’s say on the corner of Joachimsthaler, at the rush hour, the people will look on, they’ll take pictures if they’ve got their gadgets on them, they’ll push if they can’t see, and be happy in the front rows because of the extra-special thrill; but if they see somebody burning a dog, burning a dog in Berlin, they’ll hit him and go on hitting him until there’s not a quiver left in him, and then they’ll hit him some more.

We only regret that Grass should hammer away at the point, hammering it home—and nearly to death—in an unposted letter to a Berlin senator and in the narrator’s speculations as to whether statistics on canine losses in Vietnam mightn’t stir the population of Berlin more deeply than a human body count.

Starusch’s attempts to dissuade his pupil from dog-burning discredit him further among the revolutionary young whom he is supposed to be teaching. His arguments are typically “over thirty” in nature, the self-extenuation of a has-been, a potential cake-eater (once his teeth have been seen to), and Scherbaum’s girl-friend, Vero, reminds her co-radical that “Mao warns us against the motley intellectuals.” (Of what, though, is Vero a True Image? A slogan-chanting, front-line demonstrator, but also a cake-eater on occasion, a collector of stuffed dogs and “artsy-craftsy knickknacks,” and, Grass implies, perhaps motivated by her adenoids, perhaps in need of one of those old Germanic tranquilizers, Kinder, or at any rate the means thereto….)

In the end Max is spared. On the way to this nonclimax Grass treats us to some characteristic fun. Should Starusch break his pupil’s left arm and so incapacitate him? Should he report him to the police? (Oh no, an ex-gang leader can’t do that!) What about burning Vero’s stuffed dogs? (The symbol of a symbol….) Wouldn’t it be better if Scherbaum wrote “The Ballad of Max the Dachshund,” “folknaïve but hard-hitting” and maybe a bit Brechtian? Should Starusch persuade Scherbaum to let him undertake the burning (and get lynched) while pupil and girl-friend hand out explanatory leaflets—in which case Starusch can procure a covered bitch and at the last moment “find out” that it is an expectant mother and be released from his promise? Should he, with the assistance of Scherbaum’s parents, poison Max in advance? Will the dentist, who is now treating pupil as well as teacher, provide Scherbaum with an injection for anaesthetizing poor Max? A sort of pseudo-climax is reached when, outside Kempinski’s on a trial run, Starusch lists the ingredients of Schwarzwald Kirsch Torte and his sensitive pupil vomits violently, thus discomfiting some few of the cake-eating clientele. “I’m not supposed to throw up,” Scherbaum complains, “they are, when Max burns.”

Why does Scherbaum relinquish his project? “He’s given up at your expense,” the dentist tells Starusch. “Don’t let it bother you. He says he wouldn’t want to be like you, peddling the feats of a seventeen-year-old when he’s forty.” By this time the dentist has become something of a father-figure for the teacher, to be teased a little, to be resented quite a lot, but to be taken seriously…. The reader may think it more likely that Scherbaum didn’t burn his dog because he was fond of it, because burning is painful, because he isn’t really a man of violence—or because the moderate, alleviatory counsels of the dentist have prevailed.

Prevention’s the cure!” The evolution of modern dental techniques has been a gradual process, and is undeniably a case of progress. The dentist refers his patient to old paintings of tooth-breaking by tongs, just as the teacher later shows his pupil slides of the burning of witches and heretics, of Dresden and Nagasaki, of the self-immolation of a Vietnamese nun. The dentist does not yank teeth out by violence, he seeks to repair them, to build them up, under anaesthetic if necessary.

From time to time Starusch laments the brave days of his youth and his lost ideals: “How is the gold become dim!” (Unlike the gold of Amsel’s new teeth.) But in his Lamentations, Jeremiah continues thus: “The young children ask bread, and no man breaketh it unto them.” There is no lack of bread in West Berlin, and if there were, then they could eat cake. Cake brings us back to the dentist’s chair, and the blessings of anaesthetics and tranquilizers…. When, in a rebellious access of youthfulness, Starusch starts talking about a clean sweep and “the transvaluation of all values,” the dentist tells him that unless he abjures violence he will find that his jaw is being treated without benefit of anaesthetic. “I retract.”

As for Vero, her boyfriend tells us that “she reads Mao like my mother reads Rilke,” a scathing comment—and the narrator tells us that later she marries a Canadian linguist. As for Scherbaum, he finds he has to compromise on what he prints in Dots and Dashes (cracks about Starusch and his engagement to a colleague are in, cracks about Kiesinger are out)—and he goes on to study medicine, another gradual and alleviatory art. As for Starusch himself, an abscess forms and he has to have the porcelain bridge sawed through. “Immer neue Schmerzen“—always new pains.

We don’t need these concluding words to persuade us that Grass has not sold out to the comforts of comfort, the complacency of middle age, the ethos of “I’m all right, Johann,” the convenient silence of the mouth-stopped cake-eaters. And, pace Time Magazine, I see no evidence here that he believes in “the apparently helpless and surely tragic bankruptcy of liberalism.” He has simply noticed that clean sweeps leave a lot of room for more dirt, that revolution exacts a very high price for its problematical benefits. Starusch, after speaking of his past, says, “Even though I survived them, those times made me what I am. I adapted myself. I developed compromise into a way of life. I clutched at reason. And so a radical gang leader became a moderate schoolteacher who in spite of everything regards himself as progressive.” By its very nature Local Anaesthetic is not the most exciting of Grass’s novels. It is rather heavy-handed and repetitive and at times wastefully mystifying, but I would say it is certainly his most conscientious so far.

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