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the lost honor of katharina blum

17 august 2022

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is an archly self-conscious crime novel that doubles as a political satire. One imagines that Heinrich Böll's novel was immediately topical in 1974, and that much of its reference is hard to recover 48 years later, even in so fine a translation as Leila Vennewitz' English. But the audacity and tone of Böll's narrative propels the book along even for belated readers like myself.

A fussy, pedantic, unidentified narrator tracks and backtracks and retracks through a crime-filled Carnival week that has worked itself out in the West German popular press. Katharina Blum, a ferociously well-organized domestic (more a personal assistant or life trainer than a cleaning woman), is reported to have sheltered a wanted terrorist named Götten, and arranged for his escape. The various people who employ Katharina are suspected of abetting, or perhaps being, left-wing revolutionaries.

Since there is no evidence against Katharina, the authorities let her go, after several rounds of interrogation. But yellow journalists smear her and distort her life story (hence the "lost honor" of the title). One reporter goes so far as to trick his way into Katharina's mother's nursing home, precipitating the mother's death with his intrusion. Katharina agrees to an interview with this reporter – and shoots him dead.

The crime makes sense after the (short) novel concludes, but as presented in the opening pages, it is a true mystery, and much about Katharina is never explained. Everyone else in the novel seems to have something to hide. Katharina's life is by contrast an open book. She has worked hard, saved, invested wisely, fallen in love – and been trampled by her own hypocritical society. But to the end, she remains indomitably hopeful.

Katharina Blum reminds me strongly of Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö's Swedish crime novels. The showy precision of the narrative, the detailed interrogations, the acid criticism of social democracy from the left, the brutal outbreaks of violence – all appear in their work as well as his, and make me wonder if Böll had read Sjöwall & Wahlöö. So much literary history to establish, and the life so short to do it in …

Böll, Heinrich. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. [Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum, 1974.] Translated by Leila Vennewitz. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975. PT 2603.0394