The Bread of Those Early Years
This short novel, which might more properly be called a novella, is a latecomer to the American literary world; it is a translation of an early work by an author whose reputation has been growing among English-speaking readers in recent years, and who is one of the best-known contemporary German writers outside of Germany. Heinrich Böll, born in 1917, received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, and is known for a relatively large number of works, including Billiards at Half-past Nine, The Clown, and Group Portrait with Lady. His style is eminently readable, and his skill at the art of storytelling has brought him considerable popularity. His work encompasses relatively few major themes, and the favored setting for his works is his own familiar city of Cologne, while the time period is likewise the familiar era of post-World War II Germany. Böll, with Günter Grass, has in fact become the leading spokesman for the Germany of the postwar era, and his rendering of the emotional and intellectual burdens of this problematic period has become representative for a wide circle of readers both in Germany and abroad.
The present work, which appeared in 1955 under the German title Das Brot der frühen Jahre, describes what was at the time the actual present, the mood of the early 1950’s, a mood which becomes for us now more a document of the past, since it grew so directly out of the immediate wartime and postwar experiences, which were only five to ten years in the past in 1955, but which are now roughly a quarter century removed from our contemporary concerns. The world then was, for all the dramatic events of those years, in many ways a simpler place. The novel has in its tone a certain sureness of focus and optimism, an almost religious, redemptive quality, perhaps even a certain kinship to the structure of a fairy tale, which, while typical of much of Böll’s work, also identifies it as a product of that period.
The theme to which Böll addresses himself in this work is nourishment, as indicated by the title—bread, in its simplest and most basic form, as the humblest but most necessary medium of physical nourishment. But bread, precisely because it is so basic, also carries great symbolic meaning; it is one element of the Eucharist and it calls up the miracle of loaves and fishes. “Man does not live by bread alone.” Outside the specifically religious and sacramental area, it reminds us of the most elemental gesture of human fellowship, the sharing of bread. To Germans in the late 1940’s trapped in the wreckage and ruins of their bombed-out cities—having survived one of the most thorough destructions of human history and living in a society which had suffered the breakdown of all the services of production and delivery which we now take for granted—hunger was a familiar experience, and the acquisition of bread occupied a major place in one’s day-to-day concerns. The hero of this novel, Walter Fendrich, is twenty-three years old, which means he would have been born roughly in 1932, simultaneously with the rise to power of the Nazis. He would have been perhaps thirteen in 1945, which means that the Nazi period is not really part of his experience, and the problems of that era are not his. Little is said in this novel about the war itself, or the psychological confrontation with the atrocities of the Nazi regime. Böll’s character was born into a world not of his own making, and his primary concern has been survival. He would be forty-five today.
The novel’s title refers to “those early years,” and throughout the work the memory of that struggle for bread remains indelible. Already in the early 1950’s the period of hunger was past and Germany was on the threshold of the “Wirtschaftswunder,” the miraculous economic recovery that catapulted the Germans from the chaos of destruction to the enjoyment of one of the highest standards of living in Europe, a process which has continued into the present, making the Germans the envy of their economically troubled neighbors. Böll’s work takes place precisely at this juncture, where the balance has tipped, and the new prosperity has created a superabundance of bread, while the hunger of the early years is yet a living memory, and the struggle for enough to eat is being transformed into the struggle to obtain more and more of the material wealth that is coming into being. The previous lack of material necessities has created a focus on material possessions that does not abate when the needs are met; Böll has become the chronicler of the development of postwar materialism. The search for nourishment for the body, the bread of the title, is superseded by the growing awareness of...
(The entire section is 1928 words.)