Sunday, August 5, 2012

Words, Labels And Heinrich Böll

Today's column for the Sunday Guardian.

Consider, to begin with, the following scenario: Women whose morals are questioned because they leave home alone and (gasp) dance with men at parties. Sections of the media falling over themselves to report what they consider to be scandals as well as threats to national values. Suspicion and fear of anyone who espouses left-leaning and radical causes. Those who think this environment is unique to today’s India should pick up Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, written in 1974, which satirises and dissects these very tendencies – in barely 140 pages.

The book, published two years after Böll won the Literature Nobel, deals once more with his chosen themes of institutional abuse of power and its effect on the common man and woman. As Salman Rushdie has written of The Safety Net, another one of Böll’s novels, “...the real tragedy, for Böll, is the replacement of the old kindnesses, of human values, by the remorseless, amoral world of the technologists.” By technologists, he refers to the press, the police and others in positions of authority imposing their views on the rest by the use of force.

The story of Katharina Blum’s lost honour is narrated in the book’s first few pages, being cast in the form of an objective report stitched together after consulting a variety of sources. Thus, the structure of this “polemical parody” itself is ironic. Overnight, the eponymous Katharina, a good-hearted, hard-working housekeeper, is first picked up by the police and then picked upon by a malicious newspaper. Her crime? At a party one evening, she befriended a young man under suspicion of being a terrorist, and subsequently helped him evade the law without realizing what exactly he was wanted for.

After the police release her from incarceration, an unscrupulous reporter continues to write scurrilous pieces, twisting and distorting both facts and interviews. (“Murderer’s Moll Won’t Talk!” is a typical headline.) Katharina’s life turns upside down; among other things, she begins to receive anonymous postcards with offensive and derogatory messages – the equivalent today of being hounded by trolls on Twitter and Facebook. Driven to desperation, she seeks out and, rather dramatically, shoots the errant reporter, after which she coolly surrenders to the police.

It’s a subject that Böll was drawn to because he himself was pilloried by the press and by right-wing sympathizers in 1972 after he expressed doubts over the treatment of Ulrike Meinhof. Böll’s opinion was that slanted newspaper reports on the activities of the Baader-Meinhof extremists had deprived her of a fair trial, and for this he was harassed to the extent of having his house searched by the police. (Meinhof was to later die in prison, allegedly a suicide, though more than a few have contested this.)

It was from such a background that Boll’s late novels such as The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum and The Safety Net emerged. This also explains why, in the former, Böll is explicit, and acidulously so, about the damage that irresponsible media can cause: “Here is a young woman, cheerfully, almost gaily, going off to a harmless little private dance, and four days later she becomes (since this is merely a report, not a judgment, we will confine ourselves to facts) a murderess, and this, if we examine the matter closely, because of newspaper reports”.

In a Paris Review interview a few years before he died, Böll memorably said, “Behind every word is a whole world”. This draws attention to another important concern in his work: the proper use of words, awareness of their meanings and of what happens to individuals when words turn into labels. What, then, is fact, what is fiction, and what lurks between the lines? All these years later, it’s a still a message worth paying close attention to.

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