If Heinrich Böll had been living now, would he have chosen to self-publish The Silent Angel? His first novel was never published in his lifetime, ostensibily because the subject of surviving in the ruins of a carpet-bombed German city was too raw for the German public to digest. I suspect, however, that the publishers (and Böll himself) also knew that as a novel it didn’t pass muster. Finished in 1951, the novel was published posthumously in 1992. While it may belong on the shelf of a Böll completist, it’s not a book I can recommend.
Not that The Silent Angel is entirely without merit. The realistic descriptions of an unnamed post-WWII bombed-out German city are full of poetic power and motifs.
Most of the streets were impassable. Debris and rubble piled up to the first floors of the burned-out facades, and thick, heavy fumes of smoke were still rising from some of the row houses.
What once had been a ten-minute walk from the ring road to the Rubenstrasse now took him almost an hour. Stovepipes thrust up between ruined walls, wisps of smoke drifted away ….
And always the angels remain silent, observers only of man’s inhumanity to man. Time and time again the remains of an angelic statue is found broken, crushed and half-buried amidst the debris of the city. Only once in the expression of one of these statues is there any suggestion that their heavenly counterparts are pained by recent events on earth.
The people, be they ex-servicemen or civilians, are exhausted by their losses. Their city is reduced to rubble. Their families are dead. Their faith too, symbolised by those stone angels, is buried in the dust. Man cannot live by bread alone said Christ. In this scenario, sometimes they don’t even have that. It’s a good day – no, it is an excellent day – when they have a slice of bread to eat.
The promise of Boell as a writer and his ambitions for the novel in the various plot strands and the themes of human compassion vs post-war corruption are evident. Unfortunately these are not bound together to form a cohesive narrative whole. Particularly lacking I thought was the depth required to explain some of the human relationships. I never bought into the central love story. Or even the convolutions surrounding the executed soldier. Why would he sacrifice himself for the deserter, Hans, at the same time ensuring that his dying wife would receive his will and the vast riches that came with it? Why did he choose not to return to take up his own inheritance and defy his hated father himself?
This was a frustrating bitty read for me. Brilliant vignettes brought low by meagre psychological explanation. Much of The Silent Angel was reworked in a later novel, And Never Said A Word. I shall now look that out as I’m curious to see how the 1972 nobel laureate improved this material when writing at the height of his powers..
I read The Silent Angel for the German Literature Month readalong hosted by Caroline of Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat. Now let’s see what other readalongers thought …..