(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

In The Safety Net, Heinrich Böll seems to be more interested in creating a situation than in telling a conventional story. Böll defines a national state of paranoia that creates, in turn, a state of mind that is extremely disturbing and distasteful, as his characters, whose privacy is invaded by the “safety net” that is cast over their lives, attempt to deal with family and professional crises. Their lives are dominated and controlled by cadres of security guards assigned to protect them against terrorist attacks, kidnappings, and assassination attempts. The development is entirely psychological. This is a story of terrorism that generally avoids incidents of physical violence. Instead, it focuses on administrative terrorism, the intellectual discomfort experienced by those who are constantly under surveillance.

The novel begins with a decision reached by a conference of top industrialists of the Federal Republic of Germany. The central figure, Fritz Tolm, an elderly, cultivated publisher, has just been elected to head this industrial syndicate, called the Association, replacing his predecessor, the steel magnate Pliefger.

As a figurehead for the nation’s leading industrialists, Tolm knows that he will become the prime symbolic target for terrorists. Because of his influence and recognition as a respected and admired avuncular celebrity, Tolm has had reason to fear for his life: “Now it was no longer fear of something but fear for” his wife, Kathe, his daughter Sabine, and his sons Herbert and Rolf—the latter an erstwhile political activist.

Tolm’s family is endangered by dissolution and fragmentation. One of his family estates, Eickelhof near Iffenhoven, for example, has already been sold for industrial development and economic exploitation. Looking toward a bleak industrial future, Tolm anticipates the time when all the family lands, including Tolmshoven, where he currently lives, will be taken over, the houses razed, the land raped.

If the family fortunes are insecure, so, too, are the lives of Tolm’s loved ones. His daughter Sabine is locked into a loveless marriage with Erwin Fischer, a man lacking in tact and charm, a suspected philanderer, an indulgent playboy. As the story unfolds, the reader learns that Sabine has been conducting an affair with Hubert Hendler, one of her security guards. As a consequence, she is pregnant by Hendler, and the term of the pregnancy can be traced back to...

(The entire section is 1008 words.)