The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum OR: How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead [Die Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum, Oder: Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie fuhren kann] (Penguin Classics, 2009)
by Heinrich Böll [translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz]
West Germany, 1974
Without exactly being bummed about my time spent with this celebrated novella--promisingly but not necessarily intriguingly structured as a 103-page murder mystery told in reverse--I still have to confess that I'm not sure I really understand all the fuss about The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum either. In fact, I was more or less consistently underwhelmed while reading it. On the plus side, the title character's story, presented by an unnamed narrator who claims to have inside dope on the confessed killer's reason for committing her crime(s), serves as a gritty enough parable about the dangers of politicizing the pursuit of justice in the Baader Meinhof year of 1974. As an added bonus, the fictional but purportedly nonfiction text offers up an appropriately murky cautionary tale about the totalitarian state-like power of the news media to try a person in the press--in this case, a powerless domestic--before she's received her day in court (in a key scene, a star tabloid journalist explains away the utter fabrication of an interview quotation damaging to the suspect by bragging that "he was used to 'helping simple people to express themselves more clearly'" ). Also, readers looking for a moral in all this will be happy to note that the destruction of private citizen Blum's public reputation as brought about by both invented attacks upon her character in general and repeated falsehoods about her sexual character in particular--the "lost honor" of the title if you will--will eventually be exposed as part of the hypocrisy of the 1970s West Germany social fabric. So far so good. On the negative side of things, though, I have to say that I was increasingly annoyed with the narrator's smug tone in asides about "our reportorial obligations" and whatnot (65). Maybe this was just a personal disconnect between the character and me that other, less-cranky readers of the novella wouldn't mind so much. However, I'm not at all sure what Böll hoped to gain from promoting such an "ironic," intrusive meddler as the author figure in his work when the political and social themes under discussion are far more interesting than the rather drab and uninteresting subversion of the text provided by both the heavyhanded narrator and Katharina Blum's equally ponderous subtitle, How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead. An OK read all in all but a bit of a bore all the same.
Heinrich Böll (1917-1985)
I read The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum as part of a two-man, group read tag team with the mighty Séamus of Vapour Trails. Will link to his post below once it's available. In the meantime, here's a strong statement in support of Böll from a book blog titan who admired the novella much more than I did: