Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, or: How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead, by Heinrich Böll
1974, 140 pp.

Heinrich Böll seems to have led a rather difficult life. A Catholic pacifist who managed to get out of joining the Hitler Youth in the 1930's, he was conscripted into the Wehrmacht and fought in France, Romania, Hungary, and the Soviet Union, being wounded four times, then was captured by Americans and interred in a prisoner-of-war camp. His home city of Cologne was heavily damaged by Allied bombing, and he wrote in a style called "Trümmerliteratur"--the literature of the rubble. His books are short, sharp, and dark written in a simple, straightforward style, constantly attacking authority. During the attacks of the Baader-Meinhof Gang in the early 1970's, Böll (who by then had won the Nobel Prize) was appalled at the sensationalist, unethical, virulent posturing of the West German tabloid Bild-Zeitung, saying "[what Bild does] isn’t cryptofascist anymore, not fascistoid, but naked fascism, agitation, lies and dirt." The Bild immediately attacked him, labelling him a secret Communist and a terrorist sympathizer, suggesting he was in support if not in aid of the Red Army Faction. Böll wrote this short book based on those experiences.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is about an honest, hardworking maid who meets a man at a party and falls in love. He spends the night at her house, but turns out to be a wanted bank robber. He escapes, possibly with her help, and she is brought in by the police for questioning. She had nothing to do with the bank robberies, and seemed to be unaware that the man was a criminal, but the tabloid press paints her as a cold-blooded terrorist and ruins her life. After her cancer-ridden mother dies (due to the verbal badgering of a tabloid reporter who sneaks into her hotel room), Katharina Blum shoots the reporter and turns herself in. This story is presented in 58 short chapters, some less than a page, written in a detached, ironic tone. At times it is surprisingly funny: "she rings the front doorbell at the home of Walter Moeding, Crime Commissioner, who is at the moment engaged, for professional rather than private reasons, in disguising himself as a sheikh..." Mostly it is sarcastic and bitter, dripping with barely-restrained fury. By the second page (or even by the end of the back-cover blurb) the reader knows everything that is going to happen. This removes any subjective emotional experience, which is necessarily based on surprise, and leaves only Böll's skill and vast contempt to animate the book.

This it does well. Böll's narrator is quite self-aware, and plays around a bit with the time scheme, constantly apologizing and making asides to the reader: "Before embarking on our final diversion and rerouting maneuvers we must be permitted to make the following 'technical' interjection. Too much is happening in this story. To an embarassing, almost ungovernable degree, it is pregnant with action: to its disadvantage." This narration depends entirely on the outrage provoked by the contrast between what we are dryly informed is the case and how the tabloid news articles present the story. I was curious why the narrator is allowed to speak frankly and ridicule the tabloids, instead of slathering on another layer of bitter sarcasm and pretending that the News! is an upstanding pillar of democracy. Nevertheless, the presentation is excellently crafted, and when Katharina Blum is allowed to speak at the end, the effect is suitably tragic and infuriating. I felt nothing through most of the book except for admiration at Böll's skill, but I finished it angry, which is exactly what he intended.

Katharina Blum is a good piece of work, and carries particular resonance in light of the utterly deplorable behavior of the American media during the years of the Bush junta, but I would not call it an essential read. I look forward to investigating Böll's pre-Nobel work, especially his Billiards at Half-Past Nine, but Katharina Blum is necessary only for habitual completists and people who haven't yet heard that the media is full of liars, sharks, and scoundrels.

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