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April 2017: The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Böll)

posted May 7, 2017, 5:52 PM by East Bay Smith Club   [ updated May 7, 2017, 5:52 PM ]
On April 11th, six of us gathered at Ruth’s home in the hills above Oakland to enjoy an impressive array of treats, a beautiful sunset and a lively discussion of Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum.  At the beginning of the novel, the main character confesses that she has shot and killed a reporter in her apartment.  The rest of the book describes the sequence of events that led to this murder.  As we discover, Katharina Blum is transformed from a hard-working and somewhat conservative young woman to a cool and unremorseful killer over the course of four eventful days.   This metamorphosis begins when she takes a man home from a party.  Unbeknownst to her, the man is being hunted by the police as a gangster and possible terrorist.  When he slips out of Blum’s apartment the next morning without being caught by the police, she is brought in for questioning.  The tabloid press immediately publishes articles about her, speculating on her relationship with the young man, her sexual proclivities, and her political leanings.  They suggest that she too may have a criminal past.  This unfavorable press attention soon involves her family, employers, friends and acquaintances.  The consequences are devastating, and Katharina’s carefully built world is pulled apart at the seams.

The book was written in the 1970’s and was in part a response to the sensationalism surrounding West Germany’s hunt for members of the ultra-left wing terrorist organization known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang.  Böll’s criticisms of the tabloid press are clearly aimed at the right wing Bild-Zeitung newspaper.  Perhaps predictably, the novel’s attack on anti-terrorist hysteria prompted the journalists he was satirizing to accuse him of defending the aims and murderous actions of the Baader-Meinhof Gang.  Perhaps somewhat more surprisingly, the leftist terrorists agreed.  Their leaders claimed that the meaning of the novel is that “the shooting of a representative of the ruling power apparatus is morally justifiable.”  To be fair, Böll condemned the terrorists’ violent methods and championed less extreme, though still demanding, leftist values.  Still, it is interesting to contemplate what the ultimate message of Katharina Blum is.  Are we meant to accept Katharina’s actions as correct and understandable?  If not, what else should she have done?  Is she merely a victim of a society addicted to media fueled gossip and paranoia?  If so, what can be done to make our society less cruel and dehumanizing?

Most of us enjoyed the book.   Despite its age, the book felt very relevant to the current moment, especially considering the growing influence of social media and of “fake news.”   For the most part, we sympathized with Katharina Blum and found her story compelling and her ultimate act of violence understandable.  However, given her self-discipline and reserved nature, some of us found her passionate affair with the gangster puzzling.  Perhaps Böll went too far in his attempt to set his main character up as the antithesis of the scandalous, fallen woman that the press eventually describes her to be.  On the other hand, her moment of passion could simply reveal the complexity and humanity of her character. 

In part, our difficulty in getting a complete handle on the character of Katharina is a result of the novel’s style.  The story is narrated by someone who is closely acquainted with the people and events described, though he is probably not directly involved in those events (though this is not completely clear).  The narrator says that he pieced the story together based materials open to public record and private interviews with key figures involved.  As a result, he is clearly not omniscient, and he frequently discusses his limitations and the logic behind his decision to tell the story in a certain way.   At times, some of us found this self-consciousness style of narration annoying.  However, it contributed to the uniqueness of the novel and was yet another factor which, we ultimately agreed, made it well worth reading.

-Karen B.

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