Friday, 7 March 2008

Book of the Month: And Where Were You, Adam? (Heinrich Boll)

‘Byelyogorshe!’ This is the nonsensical word repeated by Captain Bauer, admitted to a make-shift army hospital near the rapidly shrinking German front in Eastern Europe, after he is hit on the head by a stray shrapnel. Captain Bauer’s neologism vividly symbolizes the utter sense of despair, absurdity and futility experienced by the ordinary Germans while their country, under Hitler, marched inexorably towards doom as the Second World War progressed, in this superlative early novel of Nobel Laureate Heinrich Boll. Along with Train Was on Time, this is one of the first works of fiction that depicts the Second World War from a German view point. It is also a powerful indictment of war.

Born into a liberal, Catholic family, Boll grew up in an environment of tolerance and broadmindedness. As a teenager he refused to join the Nazi party, which, as can be imagined, caused not inconsiderable obstacles in him enrolling into a university. He reluctantly served six years in the German army during the Second World War—he later claimed he secretly desired German defeat—always trying to get out of the service. After the war ended Boll’s anti-war and anti-fascist passions found expressions in a number of novels beginning with The Train Was On Time—he decided to pursue a literary career; his wife’s earnings (she was an English teacher) supported the family—, which earned him the epithet ‘the Nation’s Conscience’ besides the 1974 Nobel prize for literature.

And Where Were You, Adam, first published in 1951, bears all the Bollian hallmarks including his celebrated minimalistic style, subtle, yet effective, use of irony, and profound pacifism.

The year of the novel is either 1944 or 1945; the location Hungary. Hitler’s Wehrmacht is shattered and the ‘Thousand-year’ Reich is soon to be consigned to History after a mere thirteen violent years. Still, soldiers are rounded up and sent to meet certain deaths to the fronts, which, all save the deluded Nazi higher echelons know, are impossible to defend against the Russian juggernaut; the Jews are still exterminated with clinical precision; the talk is still to defend the Fatherland till the last man is standing; and shells are still exploding even though they are serving little purpose.

The novel is a series of snapshots instantiating the idiocies and illogicities of the war, which would be humorous but for the reasonless loss of young lives—German as well as non-German. Each chapter of the book is a complete short story by itself, but the chapters are also linked: at the most obvious level by the characters which appear in some or more of them; contextually, with the backdrop of the Second World War; and geographically—in Hungary, where the most of the action takes place. Boll has an astonishing ability of sharp and penetrating characterization. Amidst the degringolade of the once mighty German army, a number of characters stand out not least because of their sense of noblesse oblige, little knowing that history would judge them very harshly, and the reign of Hitler that resulted in the disastrous war would be declared as a blot on history of twentieth century humanity. Thus we meet Quartermaster Finck who dies while carrying out the absurd demand of his superiors to bring back genuine Tokay wine from the interiors of Hungary; S.S. captain Filskeit, the rabidly racist former choirmaster, who, like his leader, bears no phenotypical resemblance to the master race he so admires, and who is grimly intent on sending the Jews to their deaths in the small concentration camp he is in charge of as the Nazi war-machine is disgregating; and sergeants Schneider and Schmitz who choose staying with the injured soldiers under their care over retreat and face certain death.

Time and again throughout the novel, Boll juxtaposes contrasting perspectives and emotions. Lieutenant Greck, for example, suffers from excruciating stomach cramps and diarrhoea, a source of greater torment than the shells exploding around him, and, in a grotesque tragedy, gets killed while defecating. The intrepid and disillusioned colonel Brassen, while lying on a dirty trolley in the makeshift hospital after suffering from horrific injuries in yet another futile battle, repeatedly asks for chilled champagne from beneath his heavy bandage, and an anonymous soldier, who has fought alongside the colonel in that battle, and who is now lying next to him, asks him to drink his own piss instead. Corporal Feinhals is the shadowy presence throughout the story. A flotsam of the deadly war over which he exerts no control, corporal Feinhals marches to the front, gets wounded, falls in love with a Jewish school teacher but stands aside as she is taken, with her kin, to the concentration camp, is hauled to the front again, helps build a bridge and almost immediately destroy it, and slowly makes his way home. Feinhals almost survives the war, only to perish in a blast as he nears his home. Illona, the lovely Jewish schoolteacher with whom Feinhals falls in love, gets deported to the concentration camp S.S. captain Filskeit is in charge of. The former choirmaster, who is obsessed with maintaining a choir of prisoners—an instance of bizarrerie grotesquely overshadowing the tragedy—, commands her to sing, and, driven to insane hatred when he hears the blonde Jewess render the All Saint litany to near perfection, empties his pistol into her chest.

This is a work born out of the revulsion Boll always felt towards the senseless destruction and wanton loss of lives in the war, which blighted ordinary lives. The strength of the novel lies in its masterful depiction of the effects of war on ordinary people: their strained weariness, their phlegmatism, their brief loves and aspirations even as their entire lives are being eclipsed by the monstrosity, and the surprising persistence of human decency and gemütlichkeit amidst barbarity. When this dense and intense novel comes to an end the reader is left with an indefinable sense of pain, anger and sorrow at the senselessness and inutility of war.