By Heinrich Bo ll
Farrar, Straus Giroux. 189 pp. $16.95
"I finished school ten years ago," explains the hero of a story called "The Waiting-Room." "During those ten years I have never been out of uniform, except for the last five months, since my return from the P.O.W. camp -- and I have never hated anything in my life so totally and profoundly as that uniform!"
Like many of the people in the 22 short stories that make up "The Casualty," the central character of "The Waiting-Room" remains nameless. He is the almost impersonal victim of impersonal forces: cold, hunger, fatigue and the folly of governments. In "The Waiting-Room," he loses his hunger for a while and is "profoundly shocked":
"Where was my hunger, that faithful companion of so many years, that many-headed creature, often searing and vicious, sometimes just gently growling or amiably prompting: that mysterious monster that was second nature to me, fluctuating between wolfish greed and pitiful pleading? One day, by the grace of God, I shall write a poem, a poem about my hunger."
This collection may be considered the late Heinrich Bo ll's poem about his hunger when, during and after World War II, he served unwillingly in the German army and began to become a writer. Written between 1947 and 1952, these stories are uneven in length and quality, but they give the analytical reader a fascinating view of a great writer learning his trade. They also serve as a timely reminder that Adolf Hitler's first victims were Germans and Austrians. Bo ll began to earn his 1972 Nobel Prize on the Russian Front in the 1940s; these stories preserve some of his formative experiences.
The hunger they portray is not simply a hunger for food, or for cigarettes (which were an underground currency in postwar Europe), but a mixture of physical and metaphysical hungers: for warmth, for security -- above all, perhaps, for significant, positive human contacts. In "I Can't Forget Her," the narrator (a wounded veteran) is haunted by the memory of a woman who cared for his wounds and kissed him once when he was carried out, bleeding, from battle. "Fortunately," he tells us, "they are obliged to give me a pension, and I can afford to wait and search, for I know that I shall find her ..."
Some people in these stories eat regularly and live in loving families in warm, secure homes. They are a part of the scenery, barely glimpsed, background to set off, by contrast, the central characters who are driven by hungers. The people in the spotlight have next to nothing that they can treasure -- perhaps a hat, a silk shirt, a small coin, a memory. In the title story, the longest and most memorable in the book, the central character is a German soldier in Russia whose most treasured possession is a shrapnel wound in his back: "it was a marvellous wound, made to order, it would take at least four months for the hole to heal, and by that time the war would be over."
Toward the end of the book, as the stories shift from the war to the postwar era, some of the hungers become less elemental -- hunger not merely for bread or a cigarette (though these remain strong, too) but hunger for influence, power, a sense of importance. At the same time, the satirical note, which was sometimes present but usually subdued in the wartime stories, becomes more prominent. There is a curious combination of pathos and social satire in "Contacts": "Not long ago my wife met the mother of a young girl who cuts the nails of a cabinet minister's daughter. The toenails. There is now great excitement in our family. Formerly we had no contacts whatever, but now we have contacts ..."
At the other extreme from this sardonic humor is the almost metaphysical vision of horror in "The Cage": "A man stood beside the fence looking pensively through the barbed-wire thicket. He was searching for something human, but all he saw was this tangle, this horribly systematic tangle of wires -- then some scarecrow figures staggering through the heat towards the latrines, bare ground and tents, more wire, more scarecrow figures, bare ground and tents stretching away to infinity. At some point there was said to be no more wire, but he couldn't believe it."
For most of Bo ll's original readers, in Germany, this passage must have recalled vividly Rilke's poem about the panther in the Jardin des Plantes, so weary from looking at bars that it can imagine "no world at all" beyond them. Deliberate or not, this evocation of the great German humanistic tradition is salutary amid so much pain and absurdity. And no writer is more qualified than Heinrich Bo ll to evoke that tradition.
The reviewer is the music critic of The Washington Post