Friday 21 August 2009

59 - 'Die Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum' by Heinrich Böll

A question, dear reader: what do you think it would take for you to blow someone away?

Now that I've got your attention... 

Die Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum) is a short work (the author himself calls it a "pamphlet") by the Nobel-Prize-winning German author Heinrich Böll, which relates an incredible few days in the life of a young German woman, the Katharina Blum of the title, in which she meets and sleeps with a criminal before helping him to escape from her apartment despite the vigilance of the police surveillance surrounding it. What follows this out-of character sexual liaison (and the crime that arises from it) is written down faithfully in the form of a report, taking information from the police transcripts of interviews and from conversations with the people involved in the events of those hectic few days.

Right from the start of the book, we know (or, at least, we think we know) was has happened; on the third page, we are told how Katharina rings at a policeman's door to confess to having shot and killed a journalist. While the description on the cover, and the initial events of the book, lead us to believe that there is some sort of conspiracy, the truth is that the book has very little to do with Katharina's private life and a lot more to do with the lengths to which people will go to uncover it.

You see, the main idea of this work concerns newspapers, particularly of the tabloid variety, and the sacrifices that a civilised society makes in order to preserve the freedom of the press which is one of the hallmarks of democracy. Poor Katharina is mercilessly tortured by the ZEITUNG (a barely-disguised nod towards Germany's major tabloid newspaper, 'Die BILD Zeitung'), and so-called reporters roam the land, interviewing (and then manipulating the words of) anyone they can find who has ever had any connection to Fräulein Blum.

Katharina's supporters and friends are, in turn, subject to accusations about their private lives, whereas a high-profile figure who had become involved in the case due to his (unsuccessful) overtures towards our heroine, somehow, probably through his connections, comes off as a victim of Katharina's wiles. When a reporter goes so far as to publish a (probably fictitious) interview with poor Katharina's mother, who dies soon after, in which it is strongly hinted that the blame for the death lies squarely at Katharina's feet... well, going back to our question, what more would you need to push you over the edge?

This book only goes for around 130 pages, yet the author is able, in such a short space of time, to outline a web of connections and misunderstandings surrounding what is effectively an open-and-shut case. Katharina is revealed as incredibly hard-working, overly shy and prudish, unwilling to open herself up, extremely sensitive and, at times, pedantic; however, Die ZEITUNG manages to twist the facts to fit the circumstances which they believe best suit their readers opinions, making the poor woman out to be a sex-crazed terrorist helping enemies of the state to escape justice. The style of writing Böll chose for this work lends itself to making the reader understand the frustration Katharina (and her friends) feels as the report style gives a certain detachment which allows us to view events more objectively than if they had been seen through the eyes of one of the main characters.

The setting is also vital for understanding the atmosphere of tension and the ferocity of the press at the time. The action takes place over the week of Karneval, which, in the Rheinland, is celebrated just as wildly as Mardi-Gras is enjoyed in Rio. For those who have never lived in Germany, this may be a little difficult to reconcile with the stereotypical image of Germans as practical and sensible, but during Karneval, anything goes. There is a strong feeling of freedom from everyday constraints, and the chance of sexual encounters, like Katharina's uncharacteristic liaison, is greatly increased. In fact, I've even heard opinions saying that infidelities during Karneval don't count as no-one is in their right mind...

Even more important is the fact that the action is set in 1974, in the middle of the Cold War and the era of terrorist attacks by the Rote Armee Fraktion and the Baader-Meinhof group. In a time of great uncertainty (as seen, unfortunately, throughout the world over the past ten years), we are always ready to jump at ghosts and pounce on the smallest sign of (imagined) betrayal. When even Katharina's friends are being excoriated in the media for their imagined communist past, it is no wonder that the papers, and the reading public, are so keen to believe her a foreign spy, or, at the very least, a fifth columnist.

So, I ask you once again: if a newspaper reporter accused you of treason, hounded your mother to death and blamed you for it, dug up dirt on all your friends, rang you up and harassed you sexually; in short, did everything possible to deprive you of the one thing you held dear in life, your honour, before turning up to an interview and suggesting that you might as well screw him... would you, if in possession of a gun, be able to resist the temptation of shooting him down?

Well, would you?