The novel's manner of telling gave it a journalistic flavor, well-fitted to its subject matter. The supposedly objective report however was distracted by the many asides and satirical portraits that made the narrator just as guilty of passionate subjectivity like the characters in his story. This omnipresent narrator, a self-aware and self-conscious individual, was a manipulative one himself. He knew all the facts and he gradually doled out the information to the reader in a blow-by-blow round-the-clock account of events. The short chapters, some so short they ran for less than a page, were ticking seconds of a clock that made an hour of suspense with well-timed revelations. (I intended to say ticking seconds of a bomb but the bomb detonated early on, by page 9, and the earlier events were told only to expand on this explosion, picking up the still cutting shrapnel, to backtrack and map the events leading to this act of violence.) The narrative went forward and backward, making for a dynamic plot movement, like the impeded streamflow of the drainage or blocked tributary, which the narrator adopted at the beginning (and alluded to throughout the text) as the "conduction" framework of his story. The subtitle - How violence develops and where it can lead - prefigured a cause-and-effect method but did not really give indication of the reverse engineering it followed to disclose the flowering of Miss Blum's criminal intent. Here's the passage of page 9:
The first facts to be presented are brutal: on Wednesday, February 20, 1974, on the eve of the traditional opening of Carnival, a young woman of twenty-seven leaves her apartment in a certain city at about 6:45 P.M. to attend a dance at a private home.
Four days later, after a dramatic—there is no getting around the word (and here we have an example of the various levels that permit the stream to flow)—turn of events, on Sunday evening at almost the same hour (to be precise, at about 7:04 P.M.) she rings the front door bell at the home of Walter Moeding, Crime Commissioner, who is at that moment engaged, for professional rather than private reasons, in disguising himself as a sheikh, and she declares to the startled Moeding that at about 12:15 noon that day she shot and killed Werner Tötges, reporter, in her apartment, and would the Commissioner kindly give instructions for her front door to be broken down and the reporter to be "removed"; for her part, she has spent the hours between 12:15 noon and 7:00 P.M. roaming around town in search of a remorse that she has failed to find; furthermore, she requests that she be arrested, she would like to be where her "dear Ludwig" is.
The lost honor of Katharina Blum was a consequence of a series of defamatory articles against her. These articles denigrated every aspect of her life which up to this point can be considered exemplary owing to her professionalism, hard work, and a strong sense of independence. The novel slowly built a case on "how violence develops and where it can lead" by building a case on how one incorrect or inappropriate word is a matter of honor and dishonor, on how distortion of words can be fatal. The novel itself flowed in a stream of measured and precise wording that tended to question, meta-fictionally, the constituent words that the characters spouted, the very constituent words of the text. There's already a clear example in the above passage: "dramatic—there is no getting around the word".
This appeal to precise wording - to the exactness of meaning, to the elimination of ambiguity - was also evident in the way Katharina Blum insisted on the exact words to be used in her statement (pp. 29-30).
The prolonged nature of the interrogation was explained by the fact that Katharina Blum was remarkably meticulous in checking the entire wording and in having every sentence read aloud to her as it was committed to the record. For example, the advances mentioned in the foregoing paragraph [of the novel, i.e., "often the men had had too much to drink and made advances to me"] were first recorded as "amorous," the original wording being that "the gentlemen became amorous," which Katharina Blum indignantly rejected. A regular argument as to definition ensued between her and the public prosecutors, and between her and Beizmenne, with Katharina asserting that "becoming amorous" implied reciprocity whereas "advances" were a one-sided affair, which they had invariably been. Upon her questioners observing that surely this wasn't that important and it would be her fault if the interrogation lasted longer than usual, she said she would not sign any deposition containing the word "amorous" instead of "advances." For her the difference was of crucial significance, and one of the reasons why she had separated from her husband was that he had never been amorous but had consistently made advances.
That paragraph alone underscored not only the semantic concerns and word choice but also the uncompromising and intelligent character of Blum and her physical attractiveness. The economy of words in this novel was a product of the novelist's self-same desire to convey using the best words the clearest expression of one's vision. Other passages in the novel sustained this tendency to grope, or fumble is perhaps the more proper term, for the word or words that will accurately describe what one truly meant. Conversely, Böll expertly delineated the damning antithesis - the perversion of the words' meanings to suit the base predisposition toward the sensationalism of news.
In differentiating the "shades", the nuances and the subtleties, in the German words and finding equivalents in English that would draw out the same contextual effect, translator Leila Vennewitz must be commended. She had brought out a translation with a distinct voice for the "obtrusive" journalist-narrator and a good ear for what must have been slippery German idioms.
Originally published in German in 1974, this short novel explicitly dealt with the modern dilemmas of the individual that Franz Kafka stipulated in The Trial. The apparent illusion of liberty was manifest in the gradual ruin of Katharina Blum's reputation and the invasion of her privacy, by the press and by the state (through wiretapping). The issues raised by Böll, in a thinly disguised satirical voice, were still "newsworthy". It retained its contemporary feel. The "social function of Art", itself made the subject of a joke at the end of the novel, was relevant whenever absolutes (like freedom of the press) were erroneously promoted in perverted forms (like perverted freedoms of expression and of speech: gutter News holding sway over the public).
I live in a place where listening to the radio in the morning, any morning, will invariably make one hear of a barrage of disparaging remarks and insults by one broadcaster railing against one politician and then extolling the virtues of another, in a manner that made it grossly apparent that he was on the payroll of the second politician. That the integrity of media practitioners can be sold like cold cakes was taken for granted. For me then, the province of this book was here and today. Raising questions about the absolute "freedom of the press", Böll was deliberately treading the line of moral scruples. He had a position on the matter, and it was not the middle ground. There was no question where his sympathy, his exacting sympathy, lay.
Another view at Tony's Reading List here.