The Lost Honor of Katharine Blum
A Prejudice Awaiting its Victim
"In the case of novels and films which are explicitly political," Jack Zips says, "the necessity to begin with a specific social reality as the basis for comprehending the narrative techniques and thematic conceptions developed in the works is obvious. Two good examples are Heinrich Boll's novel The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum and [Margarethe von Trotta and] Volker Schlondorff's film adaptation of this novel." (New German Critique) This would be what Mark W. Rectanus calls, "Erfahrungskontext", which translates as 'context of experience.' Rectanus looks at the reception of Heinrich Boll's novella in the US and finds numerous reviewers lacking any broader context in which to review the book. He sees that while close textual analysis is all very well, unless that broader understanding is evident, the close reading counts for little. "While the process of close reading can be enormously productive as a necessary first step," Rectanus reckons, "a review that lacks information on the context within which the work was produced, not only loses its potential to inform the reader, it may even disinform the reader through inadvertent misunderstandings or misinterpretations of the text, particularly in a cross-cultural context." (The German Quarterly)
Nobody writing on a novel can understand the full context in which it is written and would the person who has expert knowledge of German politics be well-versed in German literature? Would the critic who knows the German language know literature with the same breadth as someone who reads novels internationally but often in translation? Rectanus, though isn't looking for some critical equivalent of 20-20 vision, but wishes at least for those looking at the work to avoid the culturally myopic. When he quotes critics and others writing on the book and the film that came out a year later, he sees effortless ignorance and wilful misreading. "Although Redbook [magazine] provides the reader with some background information regarding the Bild-Zeitung, the Baader-Meinhof Group and Boll's relationship to the above (preceding the text), its characterization of Katharina Blum as a novel of passion is not only misleading but also trivializes the work by intentionally alluding to romance genre novels." He quotes the New Republic reviewer Bruce Cook who "misinterprets the role of Ludwig Gotten, 'who is apparently politically motivated - a radical.'"
We don't want to attack others for errors and mistakes, perhaps some might creep in here, but instead to try and understand both the perspective of the author and the context of the work. Any such attempt will no doubt involve impositions upon the text but one might hope that such interpretations come out of it too. An essay insistently trying to do no more than explicate the work, whether by close reading or cultural contextualisation, might as well have been written by Boll himself, or by a historian. What we surely want from an essay is for the writer to essay, to try, to attempt, to take on the work under discussion. If one decides that Boll's fiction (from novels and novellas like Billiards at Noon, Children are Civilians Too, A Soldier's Legacy and The Train was on Time, to short stories including 'Action Will be Taken', 'Munk's Collected Silences' and 'Business is Business') is interested chiefly in the fatalistic struggles of the less wealthy and the untouchability of those with fortunes to protect, it helps us to understand a little about The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, but will be hopelessly over-simplifying a large body of work. Where does a story like 'Action Will be Taken', sit, a tale of post-war bureaucratic effort that demands enormous sacrifice? One character "has supported a paralysed husband and four children by knitting, at the same time graduating in psychology and German history as well as breeding shepherd dogs and she had become famous as night-club singer where was known as Vamp Number Seven." The action that will be taken is often the forgetfulness that refuses to face the past. Much of Boll's work suggests that he will not allow action to be taken if thought is ignored: he won't let the post-war German economic miracle impose itself completely on German consciousness. The German character must retain a sense of self that for Boll had been marked unequivocally by Germany during the war. "I don't believe that an individual can be guilty just because he is born in one place rather than another. But neither is he for that reason innocent....Wherever we traveled [in 1945], as prisoners, in France, in Belgium, the inhabitants spat in our faces, threw stones at us. Simply because we were Germans. This explosion of collective hate was an unforgettable lesson: because Germany was despised, I suddenly became aware that for nothing on earth would I have refused to be a part of it." (Commonweal) To face oneself is more important than being part of a new patriotism based on economic activity. To be German, for Boll, is to acknowledge self-hatred and a hatred one sees in the eyes of the other.
Yet in The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum, he instead wishes to focus on a certain type of innocence, and hence the lost honour of the title character. Narrated in the first-person plural by someone who wants at all times the reader to be aware of the tale they are telling without at all suggesting a metafictional facetiousness (though irony is constantly present), Boll's novella is an account of a woman's semi-inexplicable decision to kill a journalist, Totges, who goes to interview her. It happens days after the press hasn't so much delved into her life as built an alternative reality next to it that allows for an outraged, unthinking newspaper reader to see reds under every bed, to assume that even a hard-working, apolitical woman like Blum is at the same time a political radical. Here, the context of experience Rectanus talks of plays both ways. Boll expects the reader to be conversant enough in German politics of the period (between the late sixties and the early seventies) to know that political terrorism was present in everybody's minds. "By 1972 terrorism had exploded on the German scene, and the names and faces of the Baader-Meinhof gang became internationally famous, sworn enemies of the state and heroes of the politicised young." (States of Terror) But this context of experience is also relevant concerning the yellow press (Boulevardzeitung) in Germany, especially the papers owned by Axel Springer, who could play up and prey on people's fears. As Boll explores, neither Blum nor even the man she suddenly falls in love with, Ludwig Gotten, have anything to do with terrorism. Blum meets Gotten one night at a party during carnival season and finds herself instantly attracted, and Gotten turns out to be a deserter who went off with money from the army safe. In this instance, Boll shows that context matters more than text; that the reality of the characters' lives is irrelevant next to the perspective that can be adopted about them. The purpose of the yellow press isn't to tell the truth but to offer plausible lies. Gotten as a terrorist because he is wanted by the police, and Blum as a young woman who must have known him for a long time and has been helping his cause, are plausible enough because nobody was in any doubt that terrorism was a pressing question in these years. Someone offering a nuanced angle on events, anybody remotely associated with the intellectual ideas behind the Red Army Faction, was going to be denounced or assumed to be affiliated.
The book itself came out of Boll's experiences with yellow journalism. Writing an article in Spiegel asking for Ulrike Meinhof to be pardoned, Boll subsequently was subject to a defamatory campaign by the Springer press, but he was also "privately harassed and his house was raided by the police. From 1972 until the publication of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, Boll consistently defended the democratic rights of political prisoners and has opposed the unwarranted political repression of the state." (New German Critique) The book isn't about the terrorism of the period, chiefly, but about the hysteria in Germany that insisted on seeing terrorists and state traitors everywhere it could. The novella is both about terrorism and not about terrorism, but is chiefly an inversion of the journalism that insinuates rather than analyses: Boll's book inverts the type of newspaper article that expects the reader to fill in the blanks with their established prejudices. If Boll wants to show that during a political crisis tabloid newspapers can conflate criminal offences by the young with terrorism to sell papers, then a novelist's function is to show how such a conflation can come into being, to illustrate how if a country is whipped up into a state of fear, then a woman who innocently gets on with her life, and a man who deserts the army and commits a theft, will inevitably be partners in crimes against that state.
Part of the book's irony, and its proleptic focus, rests on Blum as a murderer. Within the first few pages, the reader is informed that a young woman has killed a man. Boll offers it circuitously. Four days after attending the party "after a dramatic there is no way of getting round the word (and here we have an example of the various levels that permit the stream to flow) turn of events on Sunday evening at almost the same hour (to be precise, at about 7:04 PM) she rings the front door bell at the home of Walter Moeding, Crime Commissioner, who is at that moment engaged, for professional rather than personal reasons, in disguising himself as a sheikh, and she declares to the startled Moeding that at about 12:12 noon that day she shot and killed Werner Totes, reporter, in her apartment, and would the commissioner kindly give instructions for her front door to be broken down and the reporter to be 'removed'..." The total sentence is twenty lines long, and more than a hundred and fifty words. The typical length of a sentence in a tabloid is quite a bit shorter. Tony Harcup says, "the average sentence length in the Sun is 14 words." ('Alternative Journalism, Alternative Voices') Even in The Times, it is 35, Harcup notes. Many of Boll's sentences are much shorter than a hundred and fifty words, far removed from the elaborate and tortuous sentences of a fellow writer in German like the Austrian Thomas Bernhard. Yet many sentences are lengthy and numerous possess subordinate clauses. The style conveys the hesitancies of a prose that wishes to ascertain rather than assert, to register the complications that are ironic partly because they are absurd. The papers might be able to play it straight in sentence structure and dramatic fear, but Boll's narrator, in unpicking the nonsense surrounding Blum's public profile in the context of her private life, requires both convolution and mirth.
The woman the police have been seeking, and that the public now fear, is single and in her twenties, who has the occasional gentleman caller but most of the time works hard through a variety of activities, mainly working as the housekeeper of a lawyer, Hubert Blorna and his wife Trudie. But she also helps out elsewhere, including work for an elderly couple, the Hiepertzes, and is also occasionally employed by a company called Kloft's "where I help out at receptions, parties, weddings, dances, and so on, usually on my own for a fixed fee but sometimes commissioned..." Hard-working and popular, paying off a mortgage thanks to a loan by the Blornas, she is a model citizen; in contrast to her brother who is seeing time in jail. Yet there is no such thing as a model citizen, Boll proposes, when the police investigate and the press distort. Through a moment of immense misfortunate (Gotten is man wanted by the police) meeting wonderful good luck (she meets Gotten with whom she falls instantly in love), Katharina becomes a murderer. The subtitle to the book, 'Or: How Violence Develops And Where It Can Lead', proposes that if Katharina is a murderer it is the lesser of two evils: more problematic is the murderous, the conditions that turn an innocent woman into a killer within a matter of days.
Boll may exaggerate his case but that doesn't mean a case isn't to be made, and Boll makes it with caustic irony. He turns a potential detective story into a tale about symptomatic social violence. If Rectanus can speak of 'Erfahrungskontext', then the context of experience is more pertinent in some cases than it is in others. The point in many ways of a typical detective novel is that its purpose is to tell a story while attending to the socio-cultural details very much as a secondary issue. One doesn't feel the need to understand strongly the political circumstances of her time to comprehend an Agatha Christie novel, and usually the lower down the thriller scale the less important context happens to be. But though Boll noted that he wished to defend Ulrike Meinhof and her comrades partly because he saw similarities between the press of the early seventies and thirties Germany, nevertheless the book works with an ostensibly softer power than Germany under Hitler. Boll says that as a young man he read the "Sturmer and that damned Nazi press here, which made not only the Jews the subject of their evil propaganda, but other groups in society as well homosexuals, Catholics priests and, it got without saying Communists." (Paris Review). Sturmer has gone, ceasing publication at the end of the war but Bild, while apparently far more innocuous, can still destroy lives. In such circumstances, it might not propose murder as the Nazis did but the paper nevertheless functions murderously as it willingly damages the lives and reputations of people who come under its radar. Boll was one such figure merely for suggesting that he didn't like insinuations made that weren't substantiated, but he indicates in The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum it can go much further than that. The News doesn't only interview people who knew Blum and take their words out of context, creating out of a sympathetic person a monstrous portrait, the paper also smears anybody who happens to be at all affiliated with the victim. In the first instance, someone like Hiepertz will say to the press that "if Katharina is a radical, then she is a radical in her helpfulness, her organising ability, and her intelligence..." This becomes in the hands of the tabloid reporter: "in every respect a very radical person who cleverly succeeded in deceiving us." One sees, too, guilt by association, as the Blornas are destroyed as well. Trudie's radical past is brought up as she gets called in the press "Red Trudie". When Hubert defends both Katharina and also Ludwig, the press sets out to destroy him. "It is not hard to imagine the kind of things the News wrote about him, about Gotten and Katharina, about Mrs Blorna...The rumour was being circulated that Blorna wanted a divorce, a rumour with a grain of truth to it but which nevertheless sowed the seeds of mistrust between husband and wife."
The convolutions the novella offers aren't especially those of a thriller with a serpentine plot but that of a socio-political account that tries to draw together the numerous manipulations involved. If there is much humour in the book it rests partly on a narrator capable of irony, but also on a narrator who relates situations that are in themselves absurd. An instance of the former comes when the narrator says "we must not forget to pay tribute at this point to Peter Hach, the public prosecutor, for it is he alone whom we have to thank for the information bordering on police-court gossip that Commissioner Erwin Beizmenne had the Woltersheim and Blum telephones tapped from the moment Blum left the Woltersheim apartment with Gotten." Throughout Boll uses various clauses, parentheses and dashes to insert a sly irony into the material. "As if if there's going to be any shooting in the world at all the murder of a journalist were something special, more important than the murder of a bank manager, bank employee, or bank robber." When Katharina and Ludwig talk on the phone she is happy that she gets to chat to the man she loves but Beizmenne is no less happy than she, since he records the conversation. This leads the narrator to say: "(This notable and noteworthy process should prompt us to telephone more often even if need be, without tender whisperings since we can never know who may derive pleasure from such a call.)" Often events themselves prove humorous enough no matter the bleak reality behind the situation. One of the carnival officials is pleased that the murder came to light during the week and not sooner. "A thing like that, just when the festive season's beginning and you can forget about the Carnival spirit and business." It is why when Blum goes to confess her crime Moeding is dressed as a sheikh. He is preparing to go undercover during the Carnival.
Boll seems to have asked himself what sort of prose and what sort of situations can counter the journalistic. One needn't pretend that tabloid newspapers are humourless but one might wonder what sort of humour they practice if and when they deploy it. It is often what they hire columnists for, usually writers who frequently 'punch down' with ferocity. Richard Littlejohn for example reckons "never mind Benefits Street, some lucky claimants are still living on Benefits Boulevard" after referring to one claimant as "...a hideous, obese slattern [who] has become the poster girl for Britain's obscene benefits culture." (Daily Mail). Gary Bushell was for years a journalist with The Sun who took his 'vernacular' into fiction. Interviewing Bushell for The Independent, Deborah Orr asks: "What's it like? Well, I think you'll get the flavour of it if I say it's in big print, the women either have blinding jugs or are scrawny slags, and no one has a great deal of time to spare for shirtlifters or Pakis or Kosovan refugees." (Independent) The prose was more or less the same as in his Sun columns. Prejudice pays and if you can throw in a bit of humour while denigrating usually the poor, the immigrant, the person of colour, then that will liven the copy up a bit.
Such humour is often aggressive, while Boll appears to seek instead a compassionate comic tone that registers the complexity of a situation rather than its simplification. If the tabloid journalist thinks a few derogatory comments are just having a laugh and needn't be taken too seriously, Boll illustrates how destructive a bit of humour can be without at the same time losing his own. When the narrator says that Totges was responsible for the "unquestionably premature death of Katharina's mother", interviewing the woman just after an operation for cancer, sneaking into the room after the doctor insisted that he was under no circumstances allowed in, the tone is aerobic and flabbergasted. How could Totges blame others when he was the guilty party? Totges "depicted Katharina in the Sunday News as being to blame for her mother's death and, moreover, accused her more or less openly of stealing Straubleder's key to his country home!" Straubleder is the gentlemen-caller Katharina has been protecting throughout the police inquiry, a wealthy figure the newspaper presents positively. The exclamation mark the narrator offers makes clear the absurdity of the newspaper's claims. If the paper is interested in telling a simplified story insinuating Blum is a guilty woman who has known Gotten for some time, and where they both take advantage of Straubleder, Boll narrates a tale that makes clear Blum is an innocent party who has resisted the advances of the rich suitor and who has also honourably resisted giving the police his details. When they ask who this regular visitor has been (thinking it might have been Gotten), Katharina stays mum. For the press, however, she isn't the decent woman who protects her honour and dignity, and that of others, but someone who sleeps around and hangs out with potential enemies of the state. This behaviour, insinuated into existence by the press, can be held responsible for her mother's death. How awful it must be, recovering from a serious operation, to find that your daughter has been associating with criminal elements, especially with your son presently in jail for other offences? A simplified narrative can point fingers but Boll's complex tale insists that humour can be deployed to attack the attackers, to show how cruel, inconsiderate and inaccurate narratives can destroy lives.
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is made up of 58 short chapters. Instead of a linear account detailing Katharina's life before going to the party and meeting up with Ludwig, and then showing the aftermath of this encounter that is both serendipitous and unfortunate, Boll insists on yo-yoing back and forth, pulling out minor characters and making them temporarily central, contextualising Katharina's life as he offers what might at first seem inessential, and all the while commenting on the tale he is trying to tell. Boll gives to the report not the immediacy of journalistic force but the meditative interrogation of an account that wishes to acknowledge the procedural, the political, the sociological and the psychological within the context of a dry comedy. The context of experience is deliberate and dispersive rather than unconscious and contained. If the tabloid article wishes to convey in the shortest possible amount of time the maximum amount of prejudicial information (and allow it to play on the reader's unconscious biases), Boll wonders what it looks like when you expand such a story to give it the complexity it demands rather than the oversimplifications the journalist insists upon. As Boll says in chapter two, "if this report since there is such frequent mention of sources should at times be felt to be "fluid", we beg the reader's forgiveness; it has been unavoidable. To speak of "sources" and fluidity" is to preclude all possibility of composition, so perhaps we should instead introduce the concept of "bringing together," of conduction...the sole objective here therefore, is to effect a sort of drainage." To do so the book attends to the various determinant factors leading to the inexplicable act of a woman who, never before having harmed anyone, kills a journalist. The report Katharina gives to the police in chapter fifteen provides the back story to her life as she tells the police where she was born, her parents and their employment, her marriage and her divorce, and the jobs she herself took.
Out of this report one gets a strong feeling for Katharina's social background. She was six when her father died; he worked in a quarry and was dead at thirty-seven partly through a lung injury received during the war. When alive he was frequently sick and on reduced pay; her mother took various jobs as a cleaning woman; Katharina left school at fourteen, and often worked as a domestic servant. Katharina's psychology remains available and yet oblique. She has no qualms about telling her friend Else Woltersheim, whose party she attends, where she met Ludwig, that Ludwig was "simply the One who has to come, and I would have married him and had children with him even if I had had to wait years till he got out of jail!" This comes in chapter twenty-six after chapter twenty-five makes clear to us in indirect form that Katharina fell straightaway in love with Ludwig as Boll describes a phone call between them. "No, no she was fine, of course she would rather be with him, and stay with him forever or at least for a long time, preferably forever and ever, of course, and she would rest up during Carnival and never, never again dance with any other man but him, and never anything but Latin American, and only with him, and what were things like where he was?" The socio-political permeates the material, with us well aware of the different social backgrounds, from the upper-middle-class gentleman visitor Straubleder, the slightly lower, upper-middle-class Blorna and his wife, the middle-class journalists, the upper working-class cop and the working-class Katharina.
Part of Katharina's murderousness can be viewed through the prism of her lowly status; not only to the fact that Totges is responsible for her mother's death when claiming that Katharina's actions rather than his own were responsible for it. Boll suggests that there has been much frustration and unhappiness in Katharina's life up until she meets Ludwig, and that even the kindness shown to her by, amongst others, Blorna and his wife, indicate her status as a person without much power. Thanks to the Blornas she can buy her own apartment, as they offer her cheaper credit than she can find at the bank. "...If she gave us 9 per cent instead of the 14 per cent she has to pay to the bank", they say, but Katharina wasn't easily convinced. "How we had tried to overcome her pride in money matters and to arrange for cheaper credit from our own funds..." Boll offers this in chapter 22 as we are given Blorna's perspective when he tries makes sense of Katharina's actions. The Blornas are generous but perhaps only within a system of capital that means they have accumulated wealth while Katharina has always struggled to get by. Katharina's pride rests partly on the ability to recognise, however subconsciously, that she will always be subordinate because of her class background. Her efficiency and effectiveness are qualities of a working-class woman who has honesty and integrity but remains in the social class in which she was brought up. Blorna says, "how much we owe to Katharina! Since she has been running our home in her quiet, pleasant manner, not only have our expenses gone down but the extent to which she has freed us for our professional lives is almost impossible to express in terms of money." There is no doubt Blorna and his wife are overall sympathetic figures in the novella, yet there is also potentially faint condescension towards Katharina since hers is not a professional life. How often are maids and domestics indispensable but poorly paid, reliant much more finally on the people they work for rather than those they work for who claim they are reliant on them? The wealthy might insist that they couldn't live without their maid but that is hyperbole: the house would be a bit messier. The maid, however, is reliant on the wealthy to have food and shelter. It is clear, finally, who relies on whom. In other circumstances, however, Katharina could have been at least a top accountant. Determined to find flaws in Katharina's accounts, police officer Beizmenne hands them over to a professional. "...The accountant remarked: "All I can say is, if she's released and is ever looking for a job tip me off, will you? This is what we're always looking for and can never find."
Boll is structurally critical rather than personally dismissive, as if again determined to counter the sort of approach tabloid journalism requires. He doesn't want to condemn the Blornas for their condescension but more to muse over how such claims seem natural: that obviously the Blornas would think they are reliant on Katharina. While the yellow press insists on targeting individuals rather than structures, seeing in a person's behaviour often cause for dismay which needn't be seen as socially consequential, Boll indicates that the individual is constantly a product of the social forces upon them. Even if a tabloid goes after the wealthy, it is unlikely to do so by attacking the foundations of that wealth. The papers may pounce on Philip Green's greed, Prince Andrew's sexual behaviour or Richard Branson's hypocrisy but the point is to condemn individuals whether rich or poor. When Simon Jenkins reckons the closest parallel with newspapers has "been with live theatre. A newspaper is a new show every night, with a transcript sent off to each member of its audience in the morning" (Newspapers: The Power and the Money), the tabloid press is low theatre, a Punch and Judy show where there is always someone getting knocked on the head. Clearly, it would seem absurd to ask of the theatre that is tabloid news to provide the analysis of a Brecht, yet that doesn't mean we don't need the likes of Brecht and Boll to understand its workings. If The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is a convoluted work, a short book that intricately insists on viewing events from manifold angles, it rests in Boll's desire not first and foremost to condemn but to explore to give texture and meaning to the inexplicable. To understand how in a few days a woman can move from model citizen to murderer requires not a clean through-line but a labyrinthine understanding of the socio-economic circumstances of contemporary Germany.
When asked about truth, Boll suggests that we would do better finding it in fiction that acknowledges its status rather than in fact which often hides its bias. Speaking of Latin America, Boll says, "from Sabato in Argentina to Asturias in Guatemala, straight across the board, there are so many authors, Vargas Llosa, Garcia Marquez and so on...and it is through them that a medicated impression of this subcontinent comes very close to truth." Subsequently, he suggests that" "truth must be assembled." (Paris Review) After all, in its own way, the tabloid truths the News tells about Katharina Blum have been assembled too, even if they are constructed intrinsically rather extrinsically in other words by assuming the social structures in place rather than questioning them. In constructing his story of Katharina Blum, Totges doesn't require the self-administered scaffolding Boll insists upon because much of the scaffolding is already in place. When Blorna says "I am no match for the News anyway" he is aware that the machinery of gossip, innuendo and prejudice doesn't leave the individual much chance. Sure, if you are Straubleder you might be able to have a word with a proprietor, but for most individuals the opportunity to defeat the press with the truth is slim. Not because the press has a monopoly on that truth (it may have little interest in the truth at all) but that structurally it has control over the discourse that suggests Marxists are to be feared, permissive behaviour is to be deplored, the authorities have our best interests at heart, and the mass media is there to expose wrong-doing.
It often functions as a monolithic received idea, taking into account Gustave Flaubert's amusing examination of knee-jerk notions at the end of Bouvard and Pecuchet. Flaubert's examples are usually reflective of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie as he suggests that such automatic responses include "philosophy: always sneer at it"; "suicide: proof of cowardice"; "stock exchange: barometer of public opinion"; "workman: always honest unless he is rioting." What he offers though is a list of opinions that are hard to shift; a good tabloid journalist knows too that little is to be gained from countering assumptions but a great deal of work can be saved by taking them for granted. It is no surprise that Katharina's postbox is full of hate mail, or that when her phone rings the caller insists on saying "you filthy bitch, you filthy cowardly bitch." The prejudice has been waiting for its victim, stoked up by a press that is always looking for a new effigy to burn. The press rarely has truth on its side, Boll proposes, but they do have received opinion they can manipulate. The writer's purpose is to counter such an approach, showing that truth isn't in anybody's hands as given but that each person must construct their own. One oughtn't to assume this makes Boll's position relativist, with everybody having their own truth. It is more a sceptical position that indicates truth cannot be taken for granted just because the story takes place in the world ostensibly of fact. The media is astute at a variation of Flaubert's received ideas if we think of the ancient word and the modern concept, doxa. In Ancient Greek, it meant common belief or popular opinion. For the modern French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu it is a way of proposing that, "the social world doesn't work in terms of consciousness; it works in terms of practices, mechanisms and so forth. By using doxa we accept many things without knowing them, and that is what is called ideology." (New Left Review) Speaking to Terry Eagleton he adds that, when he was a young scholar, looking at the local proletariat, the workers in factories, it was clear to him that were willing to accept much more than "we would have believed. That was a very strong experience for me: they put up with a great deal, and this is what I mean by doxa that there are many things people accept without knowing." (New Left Review) Katharina would be one such person, accepting her place in society until realising how manipulatively one can be placed there. Until the incident "Katharine had always been a hardworking, respectable girl, a bit timid, or rather intimidated, and as a child she had even been a devout and faithful churchgoer." By becoming a victim of the press she becomes aware of her status as oppressed: she can see much more clearly how the mechanisms of doxical power function even as her mode of articulation takes extreme form. The media doesn't offer the truth but a version of it closely associated to the doxa that it supports. In asking us to see the way this apparent truth works, Boll shows us another perspective that exposes the press, and offers a complex form in which to do so.
Now we can return to the importance of "Erfahrungskontext". It isn't just that we need to know a little bit about the conditions of Germany during the late sixties and early seventies to understand the book. It is also that Boll insists that the very form of the novella relies on an exploration of that context of experience: the short chapters trying to understand the ostensibly inexplicable move that Katharina makes from the timid and the intimidated to the assertive and the murderous. It is not at all a plausible story, the sort of 'predictable' tale the news constantly furnishes us with where the broader social context is assumed to replace the very specific context Boll seeks and devotes well over thirty-thousand words to exploring. If Boll admires Sabato, Vargas Llosa and others, it rests on assuming that truth is justified rather than assumed, and that justification can be found as readily in fiction as in fact. Where it won't often be found is in doxa, which looks like the truth but often happens to be its inversion, a world of lies that can be placed on top of a set of assumptions and pass for the reporting of an event. Boll suggests that once you start looking at the details, the story becomes very complex indeed.
© Tony McKibbin