Heinrich Böll’s novels tend to consist of situations reported by second or third parties. They usually include a Catholic spirit of compassion for the wounded and defenseless, a thirst for justice, and a curiosity about virtue and vice. His plots function as machinery in a literature of debris, Trummerliteratur (literally “rubble literature”), for his are novels of the destruction caused by war.
In order to tell a story that covers the rise of Nazism, World War II, an economic boom, and a subsequent economic collapse, Böll makes skillful use of “the Au.” as a researcher. Yet politics, as such, are not the prime focus; the unvarnished realism is designed to create a portrait of humans—some maladjusted, some privileged, but all caught up in a materialistic world where spiritual values are increasingly weakened. The most important question is: What has happened to justice and compassion? Margret Schlomer dies of venereal disease after having put a foreign statesman into a “treaty mood,” an act that befitted the very society that despises her. An intrinsically modest woman, she dies of blushing. Sister Rahel, the Jewish convert to Catholicism, is relegated to the status of a neglected hideaway in a convent. Her intellectual brilliance and defiance are nullified by the degrading treatment given her. Ilse Kremer, Leni’s fellow worker, dies in despair, with no belongings other than a recently paid-up television set, half a bottle of vinegar, a few cigarette papers, and a rent receipt-book. Boris is caught up in the web of politics, which allows no room for love. Lev, the son born to Boris and Leni, is a deliberate criminal in protest against his cousins who manipulate family fortunes in their favor. Finally Leni, the trammeled heroine, never appears to have a life of unambiguous hope. She can be certain of only one thing: more duress. Yet her romanticism and her son’s unrest signal an emerging opposition to society. Their anomalies are an anarchic resistance to life’s injustices.