By Heinrich Boll. Translated from the German by Leila Vennewit. New York:

Alfred A. Knopf, 1982. ISBN: 0-394-51404-1.

There isn't much of a story in this Boll novel. Fritz Tolm has been elected president of the West German Republic sometime in the 1950s, maybe later. He and his entire extended family are subjected to incredible security and suffer a great deal of personal loss because of it. The reader is treated to a huge cast of characters and the inside story of many of them. A tour de force of great writing.

However, for me, the book took me far beyond the sorts of security which the Tolm family had to endure. I couldn't help think of how much each of us has sacrificed in our time for security. From locks on the doors of our homes, to security cameras multiplying like internet accounts, to restricted movement and travel all in the name of security.

We are presented, as life has always done, with a dialectic between safety and spontaneity. There is risk in nearly everything we do. People are killed daily just crossing the street, or turning on an oven and blowing up the house. How much risk is too much risk? Each of us must determine for his or her own self, but increasingly the social systems in which we live define life more and more toward the side of safety, holding others criminally or civilly responsible for excessive risk.

I am one who leans by nature toward the side of the dividing line which current trends would regard as both foolish and excessive. The Heinrich Boll book just horrified me. I saw how much these people, more than a dozen of them in the immediate family, sacrificed because of Fritz's choice of job.

Most of us don't live anything near the level of loss of freedom which the Tolm family suffered in Germany in those days of imminent terrorism toward the politically important and their families. Yet the theme was never far from my own everyday life. At times I felt I needed to leap up from my reading chair and go do something risky. At other times I just reveled in the nostalgia of simpler times when people just did their own thing, took their own risks, and each was responsible for him or her own self.

Ah, I'm not quite fit for the times in which I live!

Bob Corbett

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett