In Boll's first novel: a search for purpose

August 16, 1994|By Michael Boylan | Michael Boylan,Special to The Sun

In 1950, Heinrich Boll was a hot young German writer who had just published a novella, "The Train Was on Time." His publisher encouraged him to write a novel. "The Silent Angel" is the result of that effort.

Unfortunately for the world, the subject matter of the book (the collapse and disillusionment of post-war Germany) was considered too powerful for the times. The novel remained unpublished throughout the author's lifetime (Boll died in 1985).

Admirers of Boll, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, will recognize in "The Silent Angel" themes and motifs of his most famous work, "The Clown."

The action begins just at the surrender of Germany. The protagonist Hans Schnitzler (who is hardly ever referred to by name), is trying to cope with a grim reality: Another man faced a firing squad designed for him. Hans was a deserter. Yet his fate was absorbed by the conscious choice of another, Willie Gompertz. Now Hans must take the news to Gompertz's widow (there are many widows in this unnamed city, which is in fact, Cologne).

How does the reader understand this act of "salvation"? Is it the saving grace described in Christianity in which the sins of one are expiated via another (option A)? Or is it the "fast exit" of one who is nauseated at the prospect of continued existence (option B)?

This is an important issue, for it colors the act and its ensuing consequences.

At worst, it is not an act at all but merely chance operating blindly against a background that does not nor ever did make "sense" (i.e., is purposeful) -- option C. These are the heady themes that give the book its texture and separate it from so many others of that period.

After completing his final mission, Hans meets a woman, Regina Unger, who has just lost her child. The rest of the story is theirs. Is it a love story? To say it is love is to ascribe conscious purpose to the actions. This would point the author in the direction of option A. For to love another and declare each other espoused is a hopeful act that recognizes a positive future in which both parties will participate. There is evidence to support this reading -- especially at the end of the novel.

However, the bleak manner in which the relationship begins describes characters at the brink of extinction.

At the beginning of the novel, Hans has gone hungry so long that the thought of eating some bread captures his entire attention:

"His gaze now shifted to the right, into an open cupboard whose door had been ripped off by air pressure; he saw the splintered remains of the plywood door still hanging on the hinges, and the floor was covered with tiny chips of paint. Bread lay in the cupboard. Several loaves. . . . His mouth immediately began to water. He swallowed hard and thought, I'm going to eat bread. Bread, no matter what, I'll have bread."

The depiction of the aimless Hans wandering the streets in search of something or nothing supports option B. This is the Heideggerian philosophy of "drawing attention" to being. Heidegger was influential during this period, and the post-war era caused him to make modifications in his "Introduction to Metaphysics." In option B, one can understand life through considering the context of non-being. Through examining the edge of death, Hans can bring Being into sharper focus.

Drawing values out of such a subsistence is dangerous. It can lead to a blind will to power. But Hans is a soul who is shattered. This possibility never materializes for him.

Finally, there is option C. Here we are drawn into sharp contradiction with option A. Option C suggests no purpose. All is accidental. Religion under option C is a cruel farce.

There is evidence for this reading as well. The "silent angel" of the title is invoked at the end of the novel when the couple, Hans and Regina, decide to make their union formal through a private church ceremony. This involves a recognition of the customs of the community, yet at the same time the icon of the angel is brought forth in the context of a funeral.

In this death, the angel is depicted as an empty, silent symbol. Maybe there is no one else there? Maybe God is similarly an empty, silent, meaningless symbol?

The tension between options A, B, and C make this book more than just a period piece by a great writer.

"The Silent Angel" is a finely wrought gem that speaks not only of Germany, Sarajevo, Beirut or Belfast, but to a world that struggles with the meaning of Being itself.

Dr. Boylan is a poet and philosopher. His most recent book, "Ethical Issues in Business," will be published in December.


Title: "The Silent Angel"

Author: Heinrich Boll; translated by Breon Mitchell

Publisher: St. Martin's

Length, price: 182 pages, $19.95

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