The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum – Heinrich Boll (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #64)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum or, how violence develops and where it can lead by Heinrich Boll (1974, tr. Leila Vennewitz 1975) is a satire on anti-communist paranoia written in a reportage style. If that summary and the cumbersome title of the novel makes you feel like this:

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Stick with me. Boll manages to convey the story with a fast pace and a light touch which means that the narrative carries you along and you don’t feel bludgeoned with polemic. He also undercuts the objectivity that his narrator is proclaiming, questioning the facts that are presented, even when we know what has happened – that Katarina Blum has shot and killed Totges, a journalist for a (fictional) newspaper Die Zeitung.

“Let there not be too much talk about blood here, since only necessary differences in level are to regarded as inevitable; we would therefore direct the reader to television and movies and the appropriate musicals and gruesicals; if there is to be something fluid here, let it not be blood […] Totges was wearing  an improvised sheikh costume concocted from a rather worn sheet, and the effect of a lot of blood on a lot of white is well known; a pistol is then sure to act almost like  spray gun, and since in this instance the costume was made out of a large square of white cotton, modern painting or stage effects would seem to be more appropriate here than drainage. So be it. Those are the facts.”

How Katharina came to do such a thing is told from a variety of viewpoints, capturing the events of four days from when she meets Gotten, a bank robber and suspected radical at a party, to the time when she commits the murder. Die Zeitung spins its own story around events, outraged that one of their own has been killed. The newspaper reporting is comical:

“The pastor of Gemmelsbroich had the following to say: ‘I wouldn’t put anything past her. Her father was a Communist in disguise, and her mother, whom on compassionate grounds I employed for a time as a charwoman, stole the sacramental wine and carried on orgies in the sacristy with her lovers.’”

Yet at the same time this is the crux of satire. The newspaper is able to spin such tales, eagerly gobbled up by its readers, without censure. The print media both perpetuates and exacerbates the tragedy, as the lies spun around the ‘Red’ Gotten and Scarlet Woman Katharina cause the hard-working, honest Katharina to become so desperate as to take a life.

Of course, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum was written over 40 years ago so the reality it portrays is barely recognisable now. An irresponsible sensationalist press, whipping up public feeling, vilifying marginalised groups, passing judgement on female sexuality…nope, can’t think of a single contemporary parallel.

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“Everything will be done to avoid further blockages and unnecessary buildups of tension. It will probably not be possible to avoid them entirely.”

Much as I enjoyed the novel and fancy admire the brilliant mind of Kris Kristofferson, I think I’ll be skipping this made-for-TV adaptation (cue 80s-tastic trailer):

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14 thoughts on “The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum – Heinrich Boll (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #64)

  1. Sounds like a fascinating read. It’s funny how some things never seem to change…

    I hadn’t heard of Le Monde’s list of 100 books of the century. Have they picked one book for each year in the century or is it a general list of the 100 best books?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was really fascinating, and although the digital world has revolutionised the media in lots of ways, it still felt highly relevant.

      Le Monde asked people which book of the 20th century had stayed most in their memories, and the resulting list was the 100 most cited – it’s an interesting selection. I really need to get back to my challenge of reading more of it!

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  2. Thanks for the excellent review, Madame. I’ve always thought I should read this novel but something put me off–maybe I took the title to be moralistic. I had no idea it is a satire. I might try reading it in German, which I’ve neglected for some time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Margaret 🙂 I certainly read it as satire, its always teetering on the edge of melodrama and the comedy is almost ridiculous, like the newspaper extract I quoted, but there’s a heavy dose of irony that stops it being overblown.

      If you’ve not read in German for a while this could be a good way back in, the style is simple (which I assume the English translation I read took from the original) and it’s short!

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    • They really do! It’s almost depressing how little has changed and what Boll is satirising still exists today, even if it is in slightly different forms since the decline of print media. It would be wonderful if this novel were no longer relevant!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’d not heard of the list before – just read it and it’s an intriguing mix. Wonder how similar/different a U.K. List would be! I read Katharina Blum many years ago and enjoyed it – but that TV trailer does nothing to entice me to watch their version!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, rather than asking for a judgment on ‘best’ books, asking which have stayed in your memory has created a different sort of list. A UK comparison would be interesting!

      The TV trailer looks truly awful 😀

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  4. I watched every second of that trailer, it was glorious. Due to the era, but also as I recognised some of the bit-part actors from Murder, She Wrote, I kept willing Jessica Fletcher to arrive and sort out the mess. And give that police chief a piece of her mind.

    Liked by 1 person

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