Heinrich Böll often appears both stylistically and philosophically to be a fusion of Ernest Hemingway and Franz Kafka, unlikely as that combination might seem. He frequently wrote in a simple prose style, recounting the day-to-day affairs of soldiers or former soldiers who smoke cigarette after cigarette and drink as much as Hemingway’s characters. Despite a surface reality, however, his world is often as surrealistic as Kafka’s, as stories such as “Unberechenbare gäste” (“Unexpected Guests”), “Wie in schlechten romanen” (“Like a Bad Dream”), “Der wegwerfer” (“The Thrower Away”) or “Er kam als bierfahrer” (“He Came as a Beer-Truck Driver”) testify. Böll has not decided whether his allegiance is ultimately to those who see humanity triumphing over the myriad disasters that dog it or to those who regard decency and justice hopelessly as overpowered by chaos, force, and intolerance.
Perhaps it is because his most formative and productive years were spent either in the field-gray uniform of the Third Reich or in cast-off civilian clothes observing its successor that his judgment wavers. Though he witnessed or heard of countless horrors, he also experienced incidents of kindness, love, and compassion that seemed to redeem them. From his experience came a hatred of intolerance but also an understanding that accusations of innate German moral inferiority themselves constituted a kind of racism. Thus, despite Hitler, the Holocaust, and those whose greatest joy is to lord it over others, he is always more interested in people like himself (often little people, eccentrics, or women—for Böll is a pronounced feminist), who are filled with awe at the miracles of nature, human life, and creative ability. These—whether Jewish teachers, German infantry men, American soldiers, or Hungarian pub keepers—are the people to whom he belongs. It is they who will inherit the earth—always provided the others can be kept at bay.
Böll associates authority with evil and good with youth, innocence, and women. Although he did not translate J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) into German until many years after he had established himself as a writer, the attraction that book had for him is easy to grasp. Like Holden Caulfield, Böll distrusts “phonies,” and like Salinger, he expresses himself in a language purged of abstractions, avoiding the syntax of authority, the gaseous bureaucratese, and perversions of vocabulary indulged in by the Nazis. His recognition of the damaged state of the German language after the dictatorship might be compared to Winston Smith’s similar realization about “Newspeak” in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Böll’s attempt to rescue German from its kidnappers is not always apparent in translation but endeared him to postwar readers. Moreover, his language often incorporates a kind of childlike quality reflective of his themes, in which “tenderness” relieves “anarchy,” to borrow two helpful terms from a perceptive introductory essay by an editor of his works.
“And There Was the Evening and the Morning”
Thus, in “So ward abend und morgen” (“And There Was the Evening and the Morning”), a story that comes perilously close to the sentimental, a husband estranged from his wife describes to her on a postwar Christmas Eve the presents that he has been able to afford for her: “It’s an umbrella two books and a little piano made of chocolate; it’s as big as an encyclopedia, the keys are made of marzipan and brittle.” Then he asks her if she is pleased, “Freust du dich?,” the sort of simple question that one might ask a child but in a language that touches the heart in a way almost impossible to convey in English.
“As the War Ended”
In “Als der krieg zu ende war” (“As the War Ended”), a “story” that, like a few others, seems almost a personal reminiscence, a fellow prisoner of war tries to explain to the first-person narrator that a German nationalist need not be a Nazi, that words such as “honor,” “loyalty,” “fatherland,” and “decency” still have meaning. The narrator offers as refutation merely a list of German “patriots”: Wilhelm II, Papen, Hindenburg, Blauberg, Keitel; he adds gratuitously and mischievously to the reader: “It made him furious that I never even mentioned Hitler.”
Böll has had good fortune in his authorized English translator Lelia Vennewitz, who renders his sensitive prose into excellent English. If her Britishisms distract or confuse American readers on rare occasions, those readers can be grateful for her many inconspicuous, clarifying additions. Böll’s Germany of simple pleasures, of belt-tightening, railroad stations, bicycles, and how it was both before and after the swastika darkened the skies has almost disappeared. In a satirical story chiding a recovering nation...
(The entire section is 2021 words.)