Heinrich Böll, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (McGraw-Hill, 1974)
[originally posted 29Jan2001]
One of the things about the European avant-garde literature movement in the middle of the last century that was most influential was the inversion technique. Most commonly used with mysteries, the authors would expose pieces of the mystery commonly left until the end of most novels, and then extract the mystery itself from things normally given early on in the story. Heinrich Böll was one of the best at this game, and The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is his best-known work of this sort.
The book opens with Blum walking into a police station to confess to murdering a journalist. (Okay, in 2001 this may seem like a reason to get a medal, but remember, this was 1974. And I’m guessing the timing wasn’t unintentional.) The book, told in journalist fashion, attempts to reconstruct the events of the four days previous to the murder and uncover Blum’s motive in killing the man. This is commonplace in mysteries now, to an extent (it’s the basis of well over half the episodes in eleven years of Law and Order, for example), but previous to the seventies, the motive was usually obvious from page one. This was groundbreaking stuff at the time.
Böll complicates matters for the reader by using the style of the murdered character in the narrative; if the subtext of the whole story is that journalists are in the main nasty beasts who distort the truth in order to sell papers, then how much of the journalism we’re given in these pages is actually worthwhile? The reader is not only left to draw his own conclusions, but is forced to. That’s beautiful stuff.
This is a book that stays with you after it’s finished, and gets even better upon reflection. Rightly considered one of the most influential works in twentieth-century literature. ****