I had such problems connecting with my chosen titles last week that it was time to revisit a favourite from times past. It’s well on 30 years since I studied Heinrich Böll in detail. I remember only that I enjoyed everything he wrote, even if I was studying him to death for my C20th German Literature final. What to read? Something short – I didn’t want to get embroiled in something long and complicated in the week before my holiday.
Thus did the 140 pages of Böll’s 1974 novelle The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum find its way to the summit of Mount TBR.
In 1972 Böll criticised the tendency of the German gutter press to publish as fact many assumptions that could not be proven. The particular examples he gave related to the alleged actions of the Red Army Faction. Furore ensued. Boell was branded a terrorist sympathiser and subjected to many an invasion of privacy, including a house search.
The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is his answer to the treatment he received, treatment which did no service to his health. The novella is, in effect, a personal diatribe; a rant, if you will. Except it is anything but. The front cover blurb, courtesy of the Sunday Times, proclaims it “a marvel of compression and irony”. Just so. Boell’s anger controlled but his pen dripping with venom as he subjects his heroine Katharina Blum to the worst excesses of the gutter press.
Katharina, a young 27-year-old lonely divorcee, lets her hair down at a party and goes home with a man she has only just met. The next morning, her home is stormed by the police, for her new lover is a suspected murderer. Only they don’t find him. Katharina must be in cahoots with him because the police have had the block of flats under surveillance all night. The press get a whiff of the scandal and just 4 days later Katharina turns herself in for shooting the unscrupulous journalist who has destroyed her life.
No spoiler that – we are told as much in the first 5 pages. For this is no thriller – the narrative voice is very detached – a reportage, an example of truly impartial reporting. Yet there is no doubt where the author’s sympathies lie. The centre of interest, however, not in what Katharina does but how she is driven to extreme action in such a short period of time. Fascinating, too, how her acquaintances and her employers are tarred with the same unjust brush. One example: her red-haired employer was nicknamed “Trude The Red” during her university days. Well, what a gift for the right-wing press and it’s a gift they unwrap with relish!
Böll once said: „Die Gewalt von Worten kann manchmal schlimmer sein als die von Ohrfeigen und Pistolen.“ Freely translated – Words can be more destructive than punches and pistols. Katharina Blum’s experience is a case in point.