This time around I will be reviewing “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum”. I first came across this book in a German lesson and loved it ever since. Therefore, this is a re-read, but I definitely read it more closely and critically than back then. The impact did not lose any of its strength, if it had not gained some.
“The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum” tells the story of said Katharina, a twenty-seven year old woman and an innocent housekeeper who gets herself into a spin of violence as she meets Ludwig Götten, a young, handsome suspect of bank robbery, murder terrorist activities and and they fall in love at the worst time possible.
What follows after this association gets public will ruin Katharina’s life and forces her into actions more brutal than she thought she would ever be capable of committing. The invasive tabloid reports and the clearly biased police investigations push Katharina to the edge of sanity.
To understand the impact and brilliance behind Böll’s work, it is important to put it into a broader context.
Heinrich Böll is a German author famously known for linking his work to political events as well as a critical outlook on the catholic church. Böll saw authors as admonishers who need to be politically involved. He was strongly against a socially constructed norm. Important to note in regards to this novel is his constant feud with the Springer-Presse. He was part of the “Gruppe 47” an organization boycotting the Springer-Presse for its actions against student movements during the time of the German division.
He famously wrote an article on Ulrike Meinhof, a famous member of the Baader-Meinhof-Group also know as the Red Army Fraction, a West German far left militant group which was responsible for many acts of terrorism. Böll argued in said article to simply give them a trial in accordance with the rule of law and was therefore falsely accused to have connections to the far left.
The press suspiciously knew details of this investigation which at the moment of publication could only be known by the police. These events led Böll to write this novel.
To make this connection to the press more clear add this quote from the preface of the book:
“The characters and action in this story are purely fictitious. Should the description of certain journalistic practices result in a resemblance to the practices of Bild-Zeitung, such resemblance is neither intentional, nor fortuitous, but unavoidable.”
To me, this book is nothing sort but a literary masterpiece. Its writing style is so unapologetically German in its dry, very detailed, analytical fashion, with so many hidden hints of sarcasm that I wonder if it truly works as a translation.
What is unique about this story is not just the writing style, but how it presents the story. From the very start the reader is confronted with the crime committed by Katharina, murdering the reporter who brought so much misery into her life and irreparably ruined the most sacred part of human identity: personal integrity. The subtitle of this story says: “how violence develops and where it can lead”. And with violence Böll does not talk about Katharina’s actions. With that, Böll makes us question own morals in a completely new way.
There are four major critiques examined in this piece.
The first and most obvious is the critique against the press. Böll was passionate about bringing to light the brutal practices and the uninformed biases with which the press operated. It is a critique both timely and timeless, as Böll was especially furious on how the left, and not just the far-left, was treated at his time, but can also still and shockingly apply to the practice of tabloid press today.
Another critique closely linked to the critique on the press and Böll’s personal experience is the one on the practices of public authorities, especially the police. The close relation between police and newspapers forms the center of this point, but also talks about questionable police practices. Different to the critique towards the press, Böll, through his narration, is willing to admit the necessity of certain practices even though the police is still shown as uncomprehending and inhumane.
There are two critiques I found highly fascinating I want to address as well. The first is the critique on the church. Katharina has been distant to the church for the most part of her life, which creates an immediate distance for the reader as well. The critique made by Böll though focuses on the lack of standing up against the injustice against Katharina and even helping to spread it. The priest working where Katharina grew up is the only person who has been correctly quoted by the tabloid press saying horrible things about Katharina and therefore helping to spread those false accusations.
The other critique is the most fascinating one to me personally. It’s Böll’s critique of the double standards of society. Katharina is often called “the nun” because she is quite distant regarding human interactions, especially with men. Now after everything gets public, all of the sudden, she is called a slut. Especially the men in this story, and truly all men involved, have a very uncomfortable way of viewing Katharina as an object more than anything. The author clearly signalizes this imbalance by his name choosing. Katharina means “the pure” and Blum could be a hint towards “Blume” which is German for flower. Tötges, the tabloid reporter, on the other hand has a very rough sounding name as many other antagonists or male characters in this story. His name hints towards töten, the German word for murdering and he frequently visits a restaurant called “Goldente” which can be seen as a hint towards greed and his urge to write false reports, as “gold” is German for golden and “Ente” is a commonly used expression for false reports. The novel is by no means only bashing men as it also critiques how disloyal most women, even all of Katharina’s friends and neighbors except her godmother, act towards Katharina.
Now, definitely let me know if you’ve read “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum”, especially if you’ve read it as a translation or in its original version. I personally cannot wait to read more Böll!