The Silent Angel by Heinrich Böll is a black and white dream. A clinging monochromatic oneiric post-war chill that is- there is one word, and I hesitate to use it to describe this book because of its criminal overuse to describe thousands of books, but this should be among the first- one of the base line books worthy of the word- haunting.
The large, bold-faced R inside the red rectangle produced a fear in her that was gradually turning to nausea (24)
The nightmare begins with a certified postcard calling Hans up to duty. The mother’s reaction to that small white card with a blood red stamp on it, a bureaucratic horror marking the very end point of innocence, is skillfully rendered by Böll. It’s that sense of knowing: she can’t look at it, can’t even hold it in her hand, she knows that she doesn’t want to know, and yet, she knows that it’s too late because she already knows.
Böll skips the details of the war itself. After all what difference does it make? The same familiar blackened bits of humanity in varying degrees of guilt and innocence are all that’s left and are always the same.
He was sick of the whole thing, she’d know why – and she did know why. (22)
There is an unsubtle use of symbolism throughout the story: the buying and selling of identities, blood, stone muted angels, the cold, decay, money: the smell of which he describes thusly, “– but it occurred to him that it was the smell of blood, the extremely diluted and refined smell of blood…” (115) And yet, more often, the overall effect is one of subtlety. The psychological divide between before and after is handled delicately by Böll. The conformity and hypocrisy of our lives is a malaise of immeasurable weight but, once held against the scale of truth rendered by abject destruction, the heft is revealed as pathetically flimsy.
He was tired; boredom and despair seemed to blend more intimately, a sluggish stream without end, whose bitterness was not sufficient to give it savor…” (112)
But it is the radical simplicity of love that is, I think, Böll’s meaning. All the societal niceties (and cruelties), all of the “accepted norms” that cause us to cower and hide ourselves away from what we feel and what we desire, once those instituted shackles fall away by the ravages of war, what are we left with? Love or hate? Happiness or fear? What’s left to savor?
Eating is an inexorable necessity that will pursue me throughout my life, he thought; he would have to eat daily for the next thirty or forty years, at least once a day. He was burdened with the thousands of meals he must somehow provide, a hopeless chain of necessity that filled him with fear. (123)
Hans understands in hindsight that his first marriage was born of expectation, fear, and polite reticence. There is a connection within a loveless marriage to the dread with which one is reduced to “eating to live,” rather than living in a world or society where life’s pleasures are ours to seize, ours to want. When he meets Regina he has already been given his life back from a man’s sacrifice, Willy Gompertz, who provides the subplot (or counter-plot) of lives lived in fear and hate and who saw in Hans a man whom “want[s] to live.” Hans only needs to catch up to that insight. Böll beautifully shows Hans’ mental process of making the decision to feel:
He had accepted life, it was concentrated for him here; a brief span of infinity, filled with pain and happiness…” (131)
He makes an intellectual decision to connect to his heart and let himself experience the pain and happiness of desire, yes for a woman, but more, for it seems to me that the very birth of our empathic humanity is – to want to want.
He entered suddenly without knocking, went straight up to her, and kissed her on the mouth. He felt her soft, slightly moistened lips and saw that her eyes were open. (133)
*This was Böll’s first book written in 1950, but not published until 1992 in Germany, titled Der Engel schweig. Post-war Germany was not quite ready for the story, but Böll went on to write many books and win the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. This edition was translated by Breon Mitchell.
Other books by Heinrich Boll: