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This set of 18 short stories, some indeed very short, we quite compelling and challenging. Heinrich Boll tends to see the darker side of human existence, but often there is the breaking through of some hope or dreams. However, he focuses on many themes of people who have moved out of the world’s “typical” (or perhaps it is that he moves away from what most people THINK is typical) and explores the darker side of human existence.
It seems odd to me to say that I “enjoyed” these stories, but I think that’s a proper description. He challenges me to understand better what drives people to the darker side of human existence, and Boll neither embraces it nor excuses it, he simply reports the actions and beliefs of his characters. It is a rewarding and challenging collection.
A young contractor has made an important bid on a significant job. His wife pushed him to invite the head of the firm and his wife to dinner. The young man never mentioned the contract at all during the evening. However, his wife was the daughter of a prominent businessman, and knew well the ropes for this sort of thing. She insists they go to the contractor’s house fairly late that same evening. Then she actually raises the price on her husband’s bid. The contractor isn’t at home, but his wife, also very knowledgeable about such things, accepts the higher bid, but wants a check made out to cash – which will be her husband’s part of the new bid. More negotiations occur and the young man gets his contract, but is deeply scandalized by this whole business deal. His wife just welcomes him to the real world of business. Very well written tale.
A young man is obsessed with calculating the waste, and cost of the waste to employers, of processing the piles of mail any business receives. He finally convinces a fairly large firm of the significant amount of money he can save them by first processing the daily mail and getting rid of the junk mail, making their employees much more efficient.
His whole life is consumed by his “profession” as a thrower-away.
This is a marvelous and very funny, if ironic, story.
This is a touching story of a boy, living in the countryside and working for the manor house. He discovers that the scales of the ruling family are seriously cheating the people. He makes this known and the village rebels. However, the military come and defend the cheating ruling family. The boy who exposed them and his family are exiled and live an even harder life than before. Yet there is a pride in them over their sense of having rebelled against injustice, no matter the cost.
The 14 year-old young nephew narrates this story of his Uncle Fred. He returned home from the war in 1945. The boy becomes the primary trader of family goods on the black market as they eke out an existence. However, Uncle Fred just lies on the sofa and does nothing ever. He did have a store of “goods” in the attic and he contributes these to the boy’s “dealings” and they squeak out an existence, but Fred does no work.
Finally, after some years, Fred just bounces back to life and shocks the family by deciding to grow and sell flowers. They are so sure that in this barter economy of poverty and want, that this is the silliest thing possible.
But Fred’s flowers are a sensation and soon he becomes a very wealthy man, hiring his nephew as a life-long associate.
Daniel Heemke is 41 and had come to this town when he was only 11. We learn that Daniel has become a teacher and principal of an elementary school and he is haunted by memories of his Uncle Thomas who, in his dotage, would simply repeat the phrase, “If only there were justice in the world,” and saying it as if the refrain were part of a prayerful litany.
I found this to be a strange and unsuccessful story of a man, unsure of himself and resentful of the world. But Boll never convinced me of what caused this bitterness and unsureness. I just didn’t get it!
The narrator is obsessed with the memory he carries of the day of his induction into the Germany Army just days before war was declared. The war has shaped his whole life’s being and direction and destroyed his hopes, dreams and ambitions. This is a chilling but very convincing story.
“Unexpected Guests” is definitely a very strange tale of a family which takes in all manner of animals – not just dogs or cats or birds in a cage, but a lion, elephant, and hippo among others! It has bankrupted them, yet they seem to take it all as if it were perfectly normal.
What is Boll saying? Is such an imaginative tale to tell us that people are just so very diverse and strange that anything can become normal? Perhaps that’s it, and if so he crafts the story very well. I felt at home in their apartment, if a bit crowded!
This is a post-war tale of the death of a grocer’s daughter in the war some 5 years earlier. It has left the grocer mentally deranged, yet somehow he still goes about his business, at least enough to survive selling his food, but only repeating one sentence all the time: “My daughter has died.”
“A Case . . .” is a beautiful and powerfully sad story about people trying to survive on virtually nothing during WWII. Kop is a trader in the market with extremely little to trade. A box has arrived for Kop who has no idea who sent it or what was in it. Everyone gathered round and speculated. It turns out it was a box of sugar tongs. Everyone laughs at Kop about the uselessness of these items.
Not much has happened, but Boll has created the sense of hopelessness and triviality of life during the war in a quiet little village.
A man works at the train station in tiny Tibten. He has more than one doctorate and is highly educated, but his primary function is to announce to arriving trains that this is Tibten, where there is a famous statue of a Roman boy who fell in love with a local girl and died here 1800 years ago.
This station announcer has also stolen the original figures from the boy’s grave and replaced them with cheap fakes which he got as gifts for buying margarine at the store. Despite his theft and the seeming meaninglessness of his job, he is quite satisfied with his life.
I liked the story. It brings home what I believe is Boll’s point: what any of us do for a living isn’t really any big deal; we work to stay alive, and if we can come to enjoy our work, no matter what it is, then so much the better for us.
In this very subtle story a newly married couple has had a spat and she is not speaking to him at all. He had lied to her about his salary and she, hurt and disappointed, has stopped talking to him at all. To add to his woes it is Christmas Eve, snowing and as cold as is their marriage at the moment.
Boll has the repentant young husband tell us:
“The books told you how to have children and how not to have children, and they contained a lot of big fine words, but the little words were missing.”
Arriving home he apologizes to her in the dark and explains he did a stupid thing and asks if she could understand and forgive him. To that question and two others he gets his first words in days, two “yesses” and one “no,” but the silence has been broken; he’s on the path to forgiveness.
The story is very subtle and quite human!
This is the story of a young man, Fink, who committed adultery with one of his clients and while confessing to a priest his sin, he is asked about other sins. The priest helps him become aware of fraud in his business as well, and urges him to reform his ways.
The penitent had not thought seriously about such “sins” in some time, but at this moment it seems very important to him and he is deeply moved.
In both this story and the previous one of the lying husband, Boll is brilliant in illuminating the importance and power of the human condition to make us wonder at ourselves and to regret some of our fallibility.
Murke works for a radio station and an art expert wants “God” cut from a lecture he taped for the station, and replaced with the phrase “that higher Being Whom we revere.” Murke is given the job of the re-taping of the phase and cutting the word “God” from the tape.
Murke is not a typical employee and the director who assigns him to this job regards him as “a wild intellectual animal,” yet is sort of happy to assign him this difficult task.
It would seem he needs 27 splices, but there are complications of the differences in the grammar of the nominative, genitive and even one vocative uses of the name “God,” so it’s going to take many more re-tapings that the aggravated professor wants. Nonetheless Murke happily puts him through a difficult morning, gloating at his having “got” the professor whom he can’t stand.
We also learn of Murke’s obsessive hobby of collecting “silences” which have been cut on tape. He even hires an attractive young woman to simply tape her “silences” for him, which he uses for his own purposes as others might use sex.
The story ends with an irony that even after the re-taping the station has to cut some other utterances of the professor’s use of “God” and Boll ends on the irony that they use some of Murke’s “saved” silences to do the trick.
I think Boll got beyond me on this story. I loved the main line, the interaction between Murke and the arrogant and crabby professor, but the role of his obsession with silences and the “joy” Boll and the editors seem to get out of using Murke’s “silences” in some of the professor’s earlier lectures is a bit curious to me.
This is a strange story of a former officer in Hitler’s army who is opening a monument for memories of war and who is very unused to the nature of living and working in a democratic country. He is a former high ranking military officer used to be obeyed.
An action packed story
A silly little story of a man given to inactivity but who could, when necessary to live, pretends to love activity. However, he discovers his best potential is in relative inactivity. I think Boll was having some fun with us!
The narrator is a professional laugher, prized for his ability to do any sort of laughter on command and to laugh in a manner that others are virtually compelled to laugh with him. Yet there is the irony that he really doesn’t like to laugh at all, and seldom does except for pay. A wonderful and creatively ironic tale.
A 14 year-old boy is suffering the pangs of growing up. He has a relatively privileged circumstance – steady, decent and caring parents, even though they are living in the hard times in post-war Germany.
Paul Zischbrunn is a believing, though not pious, Catholic. He was physically attracted to a young Jewish girl and had asked her to show him her breasts. She agreed, but before she succeeds her mother intervenes. The mother tells all and shame follows for both children who think their lives are ruined.
The girl is being sent off to Vienna to be with her father, but it really seems she will continue on to Jerusalem. The boy decides to kill himself, not being able to live with the shame. When he goes home to steal his father’s hidden pistol she calls him over to her apartment where no one is home and calmly, even lovingly displays her breasts for him.
His suicidal need passes, and while in trouble for some vandalism he has done with his father’s gun, he seems headed on the path of a recovered and likely a successful life.
This was a very touching and convincing story. It was one of my favorites of the collection.
This is a difficult little story about an author wanting to find an unfinished short story he’d read some 40 years earlier when he was a boy. It was a tale of how to write a good short story. He never could find the final part of the story which was serialized in a magazine.
The puzzle seems – did this mean Boll, for example, in writing this story about the never finished story which would tell us how to write a good short story, that the author wrote a good story or could he not because of the unfinished story never finished telling him how to do this? Sort of cute.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com