Tuesday, March 15, 2011


The Lost Honor is a very short novel, maybe not quite long enough to truly be a novel. At a little over a hundred rather sparsely filled pages, it meets the old Edgar Allan Poe requirement for a short story that it be able to be absorbed in a single sitting. Against Poe's recommendations, though, it doesn't aim at a single effect. Instead confronts the big ideas that motivate much of Heinrich Böll's work. In this book, as in The Clown and Billiards at Half-Past Nine, Böll sneers at the veneer of public respectability that hides immorality, shows the ways that people can use their power to manipulate others, and also betrays a general cynicism about the officialdom of postwar German society.

Böll likes to have fun with quirky narrators, and the relationship between the story and its narrator can be the key to his works. He has a morose mime describe the action of The Clown, showing the emptiness behind the formal rituals of Germany's Establishment. He has multiple narrators give the story of Billiards, showing the complicated and divergent reverberations of German's past.

In this book he filters his critique of supposedly disinterested figures of power through the detached style of a police report, which allows his darkest insinuations to hide behind the written words. The story concerns a woman of roughly twenty-eight who meets a young man at a party. He turns out to be wanted by the police for deserting the army, and she turns out to know a way to help him hide from the police, at least for a short time. These two factors cause the police to launch an investigation into Blum's entire life, which a tabloid (called, with allegorical simplicity, The News) is able to turn into a full-scale character assassination.

Böll does not attempt to make any of the characters in the story seem villainous. Rather, Blum's downfall is a product simply of gross inequality of power. The men who interrogate her judge her harshly for being unwilling to explain anything about "male visitors" to her apartment home. She, as a young, lower middle-class woman, can do nothing to shift responsibility for these visits to the men, one of whom is a police officer involved with the investigation. She does make an attempt to at least preserve her dignity in the official report, in what I think is a moment of brilliance for Böll:

"The prolonged nature of the interrogation was explained by the fact that Katharina Blum was remarkably meticulous in checking the entire wording and in having every sentence read aloud to her as it was committed to the record. For example, the advances mentioned in the foregoing paragraph were first recorded as 'amorous', the original wording being that 'the gentlemen became amorous', which Katharina indignantly rejected. A regular argument as to definition ensued between her and the public prosecutors. . .with Katharina asserting that 'becoming amorous' implied reciprocity whereas 'advances' were a one-sided affair, which they had invariably been. . . For her the difference was of crucial significance, and one of the reasons why she had separated from her husband was that he had never been amorous but had consistently made advances."

Superficially, this is simply about sexual politics -- Blum's protest against the assumption that she had any responsibility for the activities of those hapless males. But it captures the way that officialdom can ride roughshod over individual lives. It is not simply through malice but simply by ignoring details of individual lives, which are in fact the real motivations for people's actions. The News, the tabloid paper of the novel, does the same thing when it presents Blum as a whore and a criminal accomplice. They reduce her to stock images, resorting to a pre-written storyline of a pretty and slutty woman full using her cunning for criminal purposes. It is this coverage that ruins Katharina, and a friend telling her that "not everyone" believes the reports is small comfort, and in the end she murders the author of the articles. It is this murder that actually opens the novel, so don't think I've just spoiled the whole thing.

Böll does not always stick to his cold detachment and allows himself the occasional exclamation point, and the occasional self-conscious discussion of the difficulties of telling this story. These, to me, were reminiscent of Thomas Mann's long odes to the mysteries of time or the unknowability of the past and the necessary inconclusiveness of a story. But where Mann may spend many pages, or even whole chapters, on such musings, Böll goes on for at most a few sentences or a  paragragh. Near the end of the book he writes:

"Before embarking on our final diversion and rerouting manoeuvres we must be permitted to make the following 'technical' interjection. Too much is happening in the story. To an embarrassing, almost ungovernable degree, it is pregnant with action: to its disadvantage. .. Too much is happening in the foreground, and we know nothing about what is happening in the background. If only one could replay the tapes!"

One may expect a Mann-like reflection on the nature of narration, of the nature of reality, but Böll actually takes this as a starting point for a kind of ambigous apology at being unable to fully deal with the many characters who have come in the story--an apology for reducing so many people to a few words. This is also the strangest section of the book, in which Böll imagines what the wiretappers must think while listening to private phone conversations. He describes them as rather lecherous and shows an almost hysterical concern for their mental health: "Why does the Pope keep silent? Does no one realize all the things that assail innocent ears, ranging from créme brulée to hardest porn?" It is at once reminder of the complexity of the psyches of the good and bad guys in the story, but more imporantly it is a reminder of Böll's moral focus. He sees how a disordered system of power affects people in ways that no one remembers. And he reminds us that more people are victims of a distorted political system--in this case one that countenances wire-tapping private citizens--than we may immediately recognize.

All in all, this is a great work, with layers of meaning put together in a deceptively simple and quick read.

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