25 November 2011

The Silent Angel (Heinrich Böll)

As noted by W. G. Sebald in his book of literary criticism On the Natural History of Destruction, Heinrich Böll's The Silent Angel was one of only a handful of postwar novels that depicted the aftermath of intensive carpet bombing leveled against Germany in the second world war. Though written early in Böll's career, the novel was not published in his lifetime due to the subject matter that was perceived by his publisher as unpalatable to the German public. Isn't it inappropriate to dwell on a topic that brings home the very episodes one wanted to forget? After so much destruction and suffering, is it not perhaps best to move on to cheery stories?

Böll described the wasteland of war-torn Germany right after the end of the bombings. Amid this tortured landscape the characters moved like zombies, traumatized by their experiences and haunted by relentless hunger. The lack of food and shelter consigned the majority of the citizens to the status of refugees. They lived only to survive hunger, scrounging for the rare bread and provisions that came at high prices.

At the start of the novel, Hans, a German soldier who lacked proper identification, stumbled into a hospital and was offered a bread loaf by a nun working there. The reader was given a first taste of the novel's subject.

   Quickly he broke off a large piece of the bread. His chin trembled and he felt the muscles of his mouth and jaws twitch. Then he buried his teeth in the soft, uneven place where the bread had been broken, and bit in. The loaf was old, at least four or five days old, perhaps even older, plain brown bread bearing some bakery's red paper label; but it tasted so sweet. He bit in even more deeply, taking the leathery, brown crust into his mouth as well; then he seized the loaf in his hands and tore off a new piece. While he ate with his right hand he held the loaf fast in his left, as if someone might come and try to take it from him, and he saw his hand lying on the bread, thin and dirty, with a deep scratch that was soiled and scabbed. (6)

There was pathetic beauty in the way Hans noted both the sweetness and the stale condition of the bread. The act of biting and chewing acquired a strong sense of concretion particularly when juxtaposed with the soiled and scabbed hand holding the bread. The attention paid to the color of the crust and the paper label seemed to celebrate the bread's providential existence.

It was notable that Hans was not only concerned with satisfying his hunger but with securing his identification papers. That he should lose his identity in the rubble and ruins, together with the experience of seeing his hometown burnt to the ground and his loved ones perish, made for a victim who almost didn't have anything more to lose.

Physical hunger and destroyed landscapes of the city inhabited the tissues of the novel. Hunger (and destruction) was so pervasive as to go beyond the realm of the physical. It crossed the threshold of the characters' physical state, to become the hunger of their souls, the debilitating poverty of spirit. It became the very fires in their belly that drove them to resist that very same hunger.

HIS HEART KEPT on pounding. He was still thinking about the bread, and his heartbeat was like the gently painful yet pleasant throbbing of a wound: a large, raw spot in his chest, his heart. (84)

   In the distance, beyond the community gardens, jutting high above the railway embankment, he saw the charred ruins of the city, a dark, ragged silhouette—he felt a deep, piercing pain and pulled the window closed again. Now, within, it was dim and quiet once more, shut off from the chirping of the birds. he now understood why she hadn't wanted to open the window. (64-65)

Hunger and ruins were likened to a gaping wound in (to) the heart, a source of pain. For the characters, hunger was a constant reminder that they were still alive. It was the very backdrop of the book, which at its center was a love story with a subplot of a family drama. Yet the plot was almost sketchy and directionless as to reflect the chaos of the cityscape.

Böll was able to illuminate a time that was barely recorded, even consciously avoided, according to Sebald—erased from memory, sanitized and repressed by German writers. It was not a popular subject but it was necessary to keep a record of destruction of cities and its effects on men and women. Sebald found in The Silent Angel not only an important subject but a quality of writing that he felt approached the gravity of the subject. For a general sense of this kind of writing, I'll quote from a previous post on a novel by Gert Ledig:

Sebald's essay ["Air War and Literature"] takes to task the postwar German writers for failing to record the destruction wrought by wars. For Sebald, the books of Ledig, as well as that of Heinrich Böll and Peter Weiss, among others, are a rare exception to this apparent defect in the German letters. Sebald champions the kind of novels that speak plainly and precisely, and with unpretentious objectivity, as opposed to novels full of "aesthetic or pseudo-aesthetic effects." He favors the concrete and documentary style of writing over the abstract and imaginary. For Sebald, accounts of suffering must be commensurate to the magnitude of the human loss; these are the kind of novels worth writing about in the face of total destruction.

In The Silent Angel, the imaginary was given up in favor of the imaginative.

The curtains had been pulled open, and in the large, black window frames stood the fantasylike image of the ruins: smoke-blackened flanks of buildings, cracked gables that seemed about to fall—overgrown mounds that had been ripped apart a second time, leaving only a few spots where the green was mossy and peaceful. . . . (91-92)

The above passage described the image of the ruins as "fantasylike" but the real view of destruction made the image un-fantasylike. The qualification of the smoke-blackened, cracked, overgrown, and ripped objects could not deny the direct harms inflicted to the people on the ground.

Likewise, Böll's similes and imagery were purposefully constructed. An open piano in a corner "stood like a monster with a thousand false teeth" (39). In a particular ruin could be seen "only naked destruction, desolate and terribly empty, as if the breath of the bomb still hung in the air" (86). That lingering "breath of the bomb" was sufficient to convey the utter "nakedness" of the damage.

A most powerful description of destruction was that of the silent statues in a church.

   His gaze remained below: the altar was buried in debris, the choir stalls had been toppled by the blast. He saw their broad brown backs inclined in what seemed sarcastic prayer. The lower rank of saints on the columns showed gaps as well: abraded torsos and flayed stone, hideous in its mutilation and painfully deformed, as if it once had been alive. He was struck by the demonic grotesqueness. A few faces grimaced like furious cripples because they lacked an ear or a chin, or because strange cracks deformed them; others were headless, and the stone stumps of their necks thrust up horribly from their bodies. Equally disturbing were those who lacked hands. They almost seemed to bleed, silently imploring, and a baroque plaster statue was oddly split, almost cracked like an egg: the pale plaster face of the saint was undamaged, the narrow, melancholy face of a Jesuit, but its chest and belly were ripped open. The plaster had trickled down—it lay in whitish flakes at the base of the figure—and from the dark hollow of the belly straw spilled forth, saturated with hardened plaster. (119-120)

There's no ambiguity here as to why the mutilation of the statues displayed a "demonic grotesqueness". There's also no mystery as to who it was the personified stone ("as if it once had been alive") stood for. This posthumous horror was probably one of the most indirect and one of the most graphic descriptions of the aftermath of a night of "successful" bombing run a reader will encounter in fiction. The sickening image of desecration reminded me of a scene at the end of José Saramago's Blindness, where a group of blind men and women made their way to a church where the "blind" statues of saints seemed to mock their tragic condition.

Despite the depressing, vivid images in the novel, the reader could not fail to detect the deep sense of the novelist's humanity. He did not reduce his characters to virtual zombies. Instead, the novelist kept intact their human strengths and failings. His genuine compassion was evident in his nontrivial portraits of the human casualties of war.

Amid the the piles of debris in the city, the white powder chalk and plaster, signs of renewal of vegetation started to shoot up from the ground. From these bleak surroundings, Böll's beautiful prose was able to yield a comforting quality of tenderness, like the love story at its center. The words had lightness and softness, like sweet bread. It was not really all black smoke and white dust:

   He stood up, walked quietly over to the door, and opened it cautiously. Light was coming from the kitchen. The old, blue coat that she had draped over the windowpane let large, yellow beams of light in through its tattered holes, and the rays fell onto the debris in the hall: the axe blade gleamed somewhere and he saw the dark logs, their split surfaces glowing yellowly. He approached slowly and now he could see her. He realized he'd never seen her like this before. She was lying on the couch with her legs drawn up, wrapped in a large, red blanket, reading. He saw her from behind. Her long, damply shining hair seemed darker, tinged with red; it fell across the arm of the couch. A lamp stood beside her, and the stove was lit. A pack of cigarettes lay on the table, together with a jar of marmalade, a loaf of bread that had been cut into, and beside it the knife with its loose, black handle. . . . (130-131)

The colors and sheen (blue, yellow, gleamed, dark, glowing yellowly, red, damply shining, darker, tinged with red, black) were so lovingly spread over this description of domestic setting and minutiae (coat, windowpane, axe blade, logs, couch, blanket, "book", hair, lamp, stove, cigarettes, marmalade, bread, knife handle) as to drum up the characters' expectations of a return to peaceful, normal circumstances. There was a flicker of love in that passage, a sense that all was not lost. The sense that hunger (physical, spiritual) does not go unfulfilled. The intermittent pangs of hunger only served as their amulet.

This review is for German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy's Literary Life. The Silent Angel (trans. Breon Mitchell) was also a selection of Literature and War Readalong 2011.


  1. You wrote the review I wanted to write and I'm grateful you chose to include those quotes, they underline what I tried to say as well. His descriptions stand out, I think I will not eat bread as unconsciously anymore after having re-read this book. I was particularly struck by the quote "The curtain had been pulled open...." I couldn't really include any as I read it in German.
    In the descriptions are very poetical elements. It alos struck me how the characters are physically and mentally tired. Despite the ravaged landscapes and souls, there is hope, this is really rooted in his humanity, there is always hope.

  2. Wow! You certainly put a lot of work into this one :) It's true that where the novel doesn't really hang together as you'd expect, some of the imagery is blinding (pun intended...). The sheer animal nature of the characters' struggles is what lingers in the memory after reading this one.

    My review focuses a little more on the literary history of the novel, as I read 'Und sagte kein einziges Wort' just a few weeks ago - and there is a *lot* connecting those two...

  3. Beautiful review, Rise, demonstrating the mastery of Boell's language and imagery. For me, though, it wasn't enough to make the novel satisfying .....

  4. Caroline, thanks! It’s a great choice for a readalong. The context provided by Max Sebald was originally what pulled me to it. It seemed almost a paradox to praise a writer for beautiful writing, given the amount of destruction he described. And yet the poetic aspects certainly overwhelmed the profound sense of exhaustion and despair.

    Tony, I didn’t know what prevented me from pulling out more quotes. :p Your discussion of the history and thematic elements of the novel corresponds well with the translator’s introduction to the English version. One could easily visualize the writer’s animal-like desperation while writing the book. But there was miraculously enough restraint to pull it together.

    Lizzy, thanks! I pretty much forgive Böll the rough edges and concentrated more on the raw style of the language, as I am wont to do.

  5. Great review Rise - I need to read some Boll after reading it.

  6. Just read Tony's post on this & now reading yours & it definitely shares similarities with Masuji Ibuse's novel Black Rain, a tale centred around the survivors (specifically a young women) of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

  7. Séamus, thanks. I'm considering what to read next by Böll. A good thing he's prolific.

    Gary, I hope to be able to get to Black Rain next year. I've read Hiroshima by John Hersey but I want to read more about the subject.

  8. You have captured many of the elements of the novel that endeared it to me. Great review. The quotes give evidence for your observations, and it was a pleasure to read those passages again. - Fay

  9. I just saw Parrish's comment. I have never heard of Black Rain before but was looking for a Japanese book to include in next year's readalong. This sounds like an excellent choice.

  10. Thanks, Fay. I like re-reading many sections of the book so I noted the pages.

    Caroline, I agree it would be a great selection. Perhaps the best time to read is on or before August, the anniversary of the atomic bombing. I'm curious to see the lineup for next year's read-along.