In his first novel, The Train Was on Time (1949), Heinrich Böll (1917 – 1985), wrote of soldiers going off to war, terrified, praying, whoring, drinking, repenting but with no scenes of combat.  In his second, The Silent Angel (1950 but not published until 1992) he again writes of civilians and soldiers, one soldier in particular, a deserter, in the last days of the war;  May, 1945, in a big City (Cologne).  Again, no scenes of combat.  In both, and much of his shorter fiction, he doesn’t indulge us with the big, thrilling, bet-your-life scenes of battle and in not doing so gives us a true war story.

Combat is a small portion of a war.  Besides the logistics, and training, and transporting, and planning, and digging, and eating and sleeping there are the refugees, the terrified civilians before the bombs fall, during the bombing, after the bombing, the sheltering, the hunger, the lack of water, the fleeing from troops of one army or another.  These are stories seldom told, though more in recent decades than in those past.  These are war stories, writ large, no longer a mimesis of men in battle.

The Silent Angel is of particular interest.  It was Böll’s second novel after some success in Germany with The Train Was on Time, and after being wounded four times during the war, fighting with the Wehrmacht and spending seven months in an American POW camp.  When he presented the manuscript to his publisher, despite his earlier success,  it was not rushed into print. In fact there were many questions and doubts.  Would there be a reading public for such a grim fictive reality of German lives just after the war?  Germans were ready to forget, it was believed, to clean up, re-build and move on.  No one wanted to be reminded of participation, as aggressors, in the war, or of grinding hunger, or collapsing, bombed out buildings.  And so it was not published.  Böll was frantic.  He had a wife and children for whom, he wrote his publisher, he could not even afford to buy shoes.  He wrote more, short stories and novellas, less controversial perhaps. A book of linked short stories, Where Art Thou Adam,  was rushed to press in 1951, vignettes about the retreat and defeat of the German army, but not as close perhaps to the lives of potential book-buyers.   The Silent Angel was not published until 1992, to great success. By the mid 1950s German authors such as Böll himself, Gert Ledig, Gunter Grass were writing of the war; the public was beginning to grapple with the enormity of their complicity and their own suffering. Twenty years before The Silent Angel was published, Böll had won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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A soldier, Hans Schnitzler, on the last day of WWII, finds his way out of a bombed church cellar.  On his way he tries to brush soot and dust off a fallen plaster angel.  He has an errand: to deliver a hand-written last will and testament to the wife of the man who took Hans’ place before an army execution squad, for desertion, the man ” who robbed me of my death.”  He finds her address at a hospital and tells her of her husband’s death: a hero’s death.  “What is your name?” she asks.  “I don’t know. Once I was Hungertz, now…?”

A nun feeds him a handful of bread, a most precious commodity.

“His chin trembled and he felt the muscles of his jaws twitch.  Then he buried his teeth in the soft, uneven place where the bread had been broken.

After bread his most pressing need is for papers; who is he, what is he doing here, where is his uniform? He asks a doctor for help in getting papers and waits in a changing room

“There was a musty smell of sweat, urine, and warm bedding, and overlying it all the heavy odor of damp debris that seemed to have absorbed the smoke.  Now the sound of breathing and softly groaning men…

He returns a coat found in a changing room to a woman who has lost her baby, shot by a German machine gun in the last days of fighting.  Regina. Slowly, over weeks of sleeping, scrounging for food, selling and buying on the black-market they, improbably, begin to find warmth, caring and finally, love.

“The streets were impassable. Debris and rubble piled up to the first floors of the burned-out facades, and thick, heavy fumes of smoke were still rising from some of the row houses.”

Hans begins to make a bit of a living, stealing coal in small amounts from the incoming trains.  She sells a camera to get him papers.

“With a happiness he had never known before he felt her warmth, and knew he would never be cold sleeping beside her.  He nestled closer to her, pressing against her so tightly  that she had to lift her hands, since there was no longer room for them between their bodies.”

Gradually, and somewhat obscurely, a mystery unfolds.  The will brought to the dying woman is being sought by a Herr Doktor Professor Fischer, both in-laws of the dead man’s father.  If she doesn’t get the money, he will.  He also has a daughter, injured in a bicycle accident, who needs a blood transfusion.  Regina, needing money, agrees.  A harrowing arm-to-arm transfusion takes place.  It is apparently a good deal of blood; she finally falls to sleep after long moments of vertigo and pain.  Fischer, gratified that his daughter will live, also makes off with a rare Madonna in the room.

And so, even as love gives Hans and Regina a measure of hope, the never-ending thrum of corruption takes up its beat.  Fischer, having crawled in the dust and dirt under the dying woman’s bed has found the will.  With his father-in-law he stands on the fallen white angel, its face sinking into the mud, and tears up the paper. Neither man wants the widow to have it. Life goes on.

For an exemplary setting out of the seldom talked about, though enormous effects of war, readers can’t do much better than turn to Heinrich Böll.  He gives us the destruction and despair without flinching and without sentimentality. Some respond with empathy and caring; some continue their predatory ways.

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Breon Mitchell, the talented translator of other German fiction, including Kafka and a 2009 re-translation of Grass’s The Tin Drum, does a fine job with Böll. We read it in that ideal state of native English, non-native culture. In 182 pages only one quibble: Breon, “her innards contracted” is a use of American western idiom (innards) of low register with a higher register verb, “contracted.” Huh? says the reading brain, and then moves on.