Monday, September 28, 2009

Heinrich Böll - And Where Were You, Adam?

Watching the average war film, playing the most popular "first person shooters" that are set in the Second World War, or even watching the History Channel, you could be forgiven for imagining that warfare was a constant piece of action.

The reality is of course, that war is more likely to be long periods of absolute boredom, punctuated by short periods of absolute terror.

This is the first of Heinrich Böll's novel that I've read. It is a incredibly short work, that took a while to get into. Partly because there isn't really a plot. The story is really about the collapse of an entire army, and how that affects various individuals. In this case, the army collapsing is the German one under the pressures of the Russian advance.

Some try to follow their orders, even when it is utterly impractical and suicidal. Perhaps they believe that the normality of life that they have experienced, occupying relative backwaters in Hungary and Romania will return. Others panic, or sit calmly waiting for the arrival of the enemy. Others desperately try to escape or find loved ones.

Heinrich Böll was in the German infantry, though he resisted joining for many years. He was in no way a supporter of Hitler, and his observations of army life would lead us to believe that many in the army weren't. The novel works as a sequence of "acts". We meet different characters who are linked by chance or accident, some survive some are killed. Some we don't know about. The Holocaust accounts for a number, a particularly horrific SS Captain, carrying out his orders to the end, finalyl kills the remaining Jews in his camp as he realises that they are really as human as he is.

There is a touching naivety to much of the stories. Many of the characters have no experience of the war, only to have it arrive out of the blue, bringing death and horror with it. The woman who runs a small guest house, who sees a army lorry once a month, does well after soldiers are billetted with her, only to see her dreams shattered in the face of the oncoming Russians.

In the end, we are left with the sheer pointlessness of many of the deaths in war. Innocents caught in the cross-fire, but a cross-fire that is the result of officers ordering shots and troops pulling triggers. Written in the aftermath of the German defeat, by a German soldier, this is nothing but an argument against future wars. How little we seem to have learnt.


Andrew said...
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Peter Groves said...

I just finshed reasing this, and found your comments very apposite. I realise that I have already forgotten the fate of some of the protagonists, which provides a striking illustration of (it seems to me) exactly what Böll sought to convey: how mundane and ordinary war is. I particularly liked the way he created so many links between the characters - the waiter who served Feinhals turning up as the artillery spotter whose battery fires the fateful round at the end ... brilliant, it speaks so eloquently of how interconnected the world is.

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