09 November 2011

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (Heinrich Böll)

Someone must have slandered Katharina Blum for, one morning, without having done anything wrong, she was brought in for questioning by the police. But no, it appears the police were questioning Miss Blum for her involvement with a man who stayed in her place the previous night. The man was accused of murder, most wanted by the authorities, and by all indications, it looked like she helped him escape the police stakeout around her place. At the outset this looked like a simple crime investigation, but Heinrich Böll, a writer who has now gained my readership (thanks to German Literature Month), framed a twisted narrative about the willful distortions of the truth to sensationalize a piece of news. It's a lethal piece of writing that questioned the absolute freedom granted to press. In the present 'civilized' world where libel was, by broader consensus, increasingly considered taboo and contrary to the ideals of press freedom, Böll sought to interrogate that very ideal in his depiction of a woman held hostage by the media's manipulation of truth. I suspect only a few radical writers could get away with a controversial subject like this, subject that concerned itself with ethics, the handling of truth, and the disintegration of one's cherished values. Böll was one of these writers who grappled with human institutions, systems, and structures, and developed a prognosis on the fallibility of that system to protect human rights, the nakedness of the individual amid an onslaught of systematic lies and deceptions broadcast boldface on the news.

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.


  1. Böll is one of those writers whose books I've been picking up and putting back in bookshops for all of my adult life, for some reason never actually getting around to reading him. Your review has pushed him way up in the reading queue, thanks, and I'm especially attracted to the subject matter of this novel, particularly given the trials by court of public opinion that seem to have supplanted any communal notion of due process here in the U.S.

  2. Love this book, a real modern classic, and (as I wrote in my review) the foreword is just the most wonderful piece of bitter humour, especially for anyone who has read (or looked at) 'Die Bild-Zeitung'...

  3. Great review of a great book. Puts me in the mood to read it again right away. I was very impressed how powerful it is when I first read it. It shows that he is more versatile than one could think when reading some of his other novels.
    It's amazing how topical it is.

  4. Boll's opening statement is a straight rephrasing of the opening line of Kafka's 'The Trial'. The German film director Volker Schlondorff made a brilliant adaptation of this novel for film in '75 only a year after the novel's original publication, and also of 'Tin Drum' with significant collaboration by Grass .

  5. I ve read a few Boll but not this one ,he is a lovely writer from the books I ve read so pleased I ve got a couple more to read ,all the best stu

  6. Scott, I’ve been ignoring him too in bookstores. The strongest encouragement came from Max Sebald. Then the enthusiasm by bloggers like Tony et al. His two books I’ve read so far are very human books with universal themes. Even if this book depicts an extreme situation, I guess it really resonates in many places as the things in it really do happen as we speak.

    Tony, I appreciate you mentioning in your review the background on the setting and Carnival, and also the News having its actual counterpart in a German news agency. And also the year 1974 and the atmosphere of that time. Very instructive! It adds to my estimation of the book.

    Caroline, the books I read were so different from each other I will have to agree to the versatile. I also love the fact that he's a prose stylist and I think it really comes over in the translations. Thanks! It's turning out to be a productive reading month for me.

  7. Kevin, now I want to watch that. The reading itself had the natural pace of a suspense movie. And I'd like to watch The Trial too! It turned out Orson Welles adapted it.

    Stu, well I’ve no more Böll to read! But I do have several wished for titles I want to read at some point. All the best!

  8. Reading this post I'm wondering if Richard Flanagan's novel "The Unknown Terrorist" was based or inspired by Böll's work.Not read Böll's book but it does sound interesting and with the mention of Kafka appeals even more.

  9. Gary, I'm not sure as Flanagan was someone I haven't met yet. BUT looking up his book online, he indeed adapted the plot of Böll's 'Katharina Blum'.

  10. Have had my eyes on this book (and Böll in general) for a while, but you have pushed it up along the "must read" rankings as you did for Scott up above. Will probably wait to read Böll's The Silent Angel first, but in any event thanks for a tempting post on the joys of libel and defamation of character!

  11. Hehe. The joys are forbidding but yes, Richard, it's a relevant book of the times.

  12. The only Böll novel I've read, and I loved it immediately. A concise, intelligent, thrilling critique of modern-day journalism. Do you know other good novels by him?

  13. Miguel, I've just read one other--The Silent Angel which I also liked. But his other books were said to be just as worthwhile, if not more.