The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die so I was pleased when Tony from Tony’s Reading List chose it as one of my Humbooks for Christmas 2012. 1001 Books etc. is a long-term reading project of mine but, alas, it will never be completed because successive editions keep removing books that I’ve read and replacing them with new ones that I don’t much want to read. Still, it’s a useful guide to finding interesting books and according to the Arukiyomi spreadsheet that I have, I am about 30% done.
The Lost Honour is also by a Nobel Prize winning author, Heinrich Böll (1917-1985). He won the prize in 1972, so reading it also helps me to contribute to Read the Nobels, another long-term and never-to-be-completed project because of course there is a new winner every year and there is precious little chance of me ever learning Swedish and being able to read poetry by Tomas Trantrömer who won the Nobel in 2011. Oh well…
However, The Lost Honour is by a German author, so by penning this review today on the last day of November, I manage to scrape in a second contribution to German Lit Month at Lizzy’s Literary Life. What’s more, the book is short, (only 103 pages) which might help out with the GoodReads challenge of 200 books that I so foolishly set myself. I am five books behind schedule, but do I care? Not much. I keep telling myself that I’m not doing any more of these daft reading challenges but I get sucked into this one every year.
Anyway, time to stop rambling. What about the book, eh?
The Lost Honour, unlike many Nobel prize winning books, is famous because (a) it was promptly made into a successful film in 1975 (Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum oder) and then a tele movie in English for people who can’t cope with viewing foreign film; and (b) it’s about a woman who’s life is ruined by the tabloid press, in this story called The News but apparently modelled on the actual German Bild-Zeitung. It amuses me that people love to vilify the tabloid press, because its enduring success is a simple matter of the market: the tabloid press does what it does because lots of people buy their product, scurrilous as it is. If the mass indignation about tabloid press excesses were genuine, there would be no market for the loathsome product. If Diana’s death didn’t kill the tabloids, nothing will…
Anyway, as soon as I started reading The Lost Honour, I recognised it as an influence on Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist. It has the same themes of panic about terrorism resulting in suspicion that turns out to be absurd; unreasonable and unethical police behaviour; and an intrusive press that causes grave trouble for an innocent person. But Böll’s style is more detached: events are reported and analysed calmly and logically as if no one should be surprised that things turned out this way. It’s also the antithesis of the crime genre because Böll tells us who did what right at the very beginning, deconstructing events from every angle to make his point. The free press can in some circumstances be just as dangerous for the individual as a censored one.
The story is set during Carnival, a tradition in many European countries where restraint is thrown to the winds for a short period of time and people go about in costumes or masks to hide their identity. Katharina, a prudent, perhaps prudish young woman of little education but exemplary habits, uncharacteristically goes to a dance, and is rushed off her feet by one Ludwig Götten. They go home to her place, where in the morning the police turn up because they have had Götten under surveillance because he’s a gangster. But he’s shot through overnight, and Katharina is taken off for gruelling interviews that pry into her private life because the police don’t believe that this is a sudden, innocent liaison. And before long The News has labelled her a gangster’s moll and all kinds of misery is set in train. The lawyer for whom she works as a housemaid comes under suspicion, and his wife is labelled a Communist. All kinds of foul accusations are made, and Katharina is under siege in the apartment she has slaved for years to buy. A home now irreparably ‘stained and soiled’ by events.
We see where Katharina and her friends ‘make mistakes’: it makes no difference whether they comment or not, or say incriminating things or not, the tabloid press twists their words to reinforce the image that they intend their readers to construe. We see where the police betray Katharina even when they know that they have no evidence; they justify leaking information about her to the press on the grounds of ‘enormous public interest’. And thrust into being complicit in the sensationalism merely by reading about it, we begin to see that for Katharina there can never be redress: her honour, reputation and sense of security is lost forever. Her situation is a nightmare from which there is no escape. Katherina, pushed to her limits, agrees to an interview with the journalist who has destroyed her, and she takes her bloody revenge.
Ironies abound. Katharina’s model behaviour in the prison is problematic for the authorities: integrity, combined with intelligent organising ability, is not desired anywhere, not even in prisons, and not even by the administration. (p. 95) And when the police somewhat disingenuously try to redress Katharina’s concern about her reputation, showing her newspapers which respect her privacy and report events in a matter of fact way, she remains unconsoled. Her response is ‘Who reads those anyway? Everyone I know reads the News!’ (p. 44) Well, yes. Yes, they mostly do, alas…
Nobody takes responsibility for the excesses of the free press, and the victim is expected to take some responsibility for becoming the object of their scurrilous attention :
At this point in her statement, Miss Woltersheim was informed that it was not the job of the police or the public prosecutor’s office ‘to pursue certain undoubtedly reprehensible forms of journalism by bringing criminal charges.’ Freedom of the press was not to be lightly tampered with, and she could rest assured that a private complaint would be handled with justice and a charge on grounds of illegal sources of information brought against a person or persons unknown. It was Korten, the young public prosecutor, who in an impassioned plea for freedom of the press and the right to protect the identity of sources of information, stressed that a person who did not keep or did not fall into bad company could obviously never give the press cause for wild and potentially damaging reporting. (p. 46)
The journalist, Tötges is the villain of the piece, even stooping so low as to inveigle his way into the hospital where Katharina’s hapless mother is dying of cancer, and blaming Katharina for her premature death. But there are other villains too, especially the one who would rather see Katharina suffer than clarify ‘certain matters’ to the police because of the risk to his reputation. The novella concludes with a veritable can of worms arising from this mess, with a catalogue of the social and financial disasters that accrue to everyone entangled in it.
There was one little allusion in this story that mystified me: on page 73, what does it mean when
elsewhere we speak of sources that ‘can never come together’, all we are thinking of is the song about the prince and the princess whose candle is blown out by the false nun – and someone fell into rather deep water and drowned.
Is this a popular song from the 1970s, or a German folk song or opera?
Author: Heinrich Böll
Title: The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum
Translated by Leila Vennewitz, Introduction by Kurt Andersen
Publisher: Penguin Classics, 2009
Source: Personal Library, purchased from Readings $9.95
Fishpond: The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum