Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Safety Net

The Safety Net - Heinrich Böll

This is an exactingly written novel, dissecting the exercise of power by the industrial and political elite, by outsiders and finally, by money itself. The church and the aristocracy have lost their place as the ruling classes. Priests are "caught in the sex trap that for centuries they had been setting for others." The aristocracy are gone to seed - "Holger Count Tolm, the last of the name, who for many years now had been disporting himself with women and gambling somewhere in southern Spain, trying without success to be accepted by the international playboy set: the very image of an embarrassing type of decay which, in its unashamedness, was still more to his liking than the decay of the clergy behind carefully preserved façades."

The capatilist hegemony is destroying the very planet itself. Homes and villages are being obliterated to exploit the coal beneath them. The novels centre is Fritz Tolm, a newspaper magnate who inherited a newspaper after the war and, as a result of a licence issued by a British officer and helped by the fact that he wasn't in the Nazi party, grows a paper empire. At the novels start he has just been elected president of the "Association", a position he had no desire to find himself in. He is wrapped in the safety net, every move watched, every word taped and monitored. This net is to keep "They" out but "They" are not just the other, they are family as well. "Sometimes he actually feared a total paralysis when seated there at his desk, powerless 'at the power center, at the very heart of capitalism.'" "The best we can do is acknowledge the fact that we are prisoners - that we'll perish in security, perhaps from security."

Tolm lives in a castle that belonged to the local aristocracy (the unrelated Count Tolm's family). He has moved there because the estate he inherited with the newspaper has been dug up for coal. He is attached to the castle as he and the young countess had a relationship when they were young. Now he owns it but it is as much a prison as a home. In one of the most vivid scenes in the novel Kathe, Tolm's wife imagines that they do not sell Tolmshoven when the coal mines approach.
"I can see the dredges on the horizon, and I know there's no stopping - you've said it yourself that there's no stopping the proliferation." "I can see Tolmshoven, not the village, just the manor house, like an island in a vast pit - helicopter service to the mainland - conveyor belts, noise, pumps, and dredges all around us, the moat with no natural water supply, stagnant, swampy, the ducks looking sickly - and your grandchildren will be flown in by airlift to feed the last of the ducks. But there's one thing that'll be guaranteed, Fritz, one thing we can be really sure of: security"..."and in fifty or a hundred years, when they've excavated everything, Tolmshoven will be standing in the middle of an idyllic lake, and your great grandchildren will be able to catch fish from the window..."

This machine that eats all before it is captained by Fritz and other members of "the Assosciation", a representative group of the powerful, a set Holm deigns "nice monsters."  "It's the era of nice monsters, Käthe, and we must count ourselves among them." They have culture and manners, and are even thoughtful and kind, but their actions are causing many of the finest of their children's generation to turn against them, some into violent resistance (a reference to the Red Army Faction / Baader Meinhof gang), others into passive resistance or simple rejection. The son of the local doctor is the key figure in the violent resistance and is on the run with Tolm's ex-daughter in law and grandson. The doctor has been spurned by many for this, and asks: "Have we become untouchables because our child has turned to crime? So what? How many of that lot came to me to have their SS tattoos removed?" Guilt and blame stalk the book, often attached to the wrong people.

The big question at the heart of this book is how power responds to terrorism. It is a novel that could have been written just as easily in response to 9/11 as to the Baader/Meinhof gang, although the situation it examines sets parents and children on both sides of the divide and is therefore not marked by the dead hand of nationalism. However, the question as to whether it is the violence/terrorism or the response which is the most dangerous is pertinent and fascinating. He makes the point that the violent acts have "provided the system with the very thing that reinforced it, the very thing the system should not be allowed to benefit from: victims, martyrs." When you add justification to power you have a dangerous mix.

Böll is very careful in his creation of this world. He is never overly specific about the "Assosciation" or about "They". He keeps them somewhat abstracted from actuality in order to allow the reader to consider the situation without prejudice. He slowly penetrates the veil of suspicion which has been laid over many of those seen as 'fellow travellers' of the terrorists. He shows that many have never been or are no longer attracted to any kind of violent resistance. However this doesn't change their opinion that the system on unrestrained capitalism is dangerous. In a visionary moment he has a character note that the banks are more dangerous to the middle classes in Germany than "They". There would be few arguing with this point now.

Böll also gives the main 'terrorist' his own first name and acknowledges that he was both brilliant and had some insight into the flaws of the system. He was set to be a major player in the world of finance but for "the horrified frenzy that had seized Heinrich when he discovered the "international continent of money," that ocean no one can cross, those mountains no one can climb..." And although his actions may be wrong they don't make his insights wrong. "As a banker and stock exchange operator, Heinrich could have earned more money than he could ever spend, and that was probably his whole motivation: that rampant, rampaging immensity that no one needed."

This is a precise, intelligent, compassionate book - seeming to me the equal of his Billiards at Half Past Nine, both books exploring different periods of Germany's recent history with the clarity of an autopsy; although performed on a live cadaver. And the results should interest everyone, for we are all Germans.


  1. I like the book already. Böll seems to remind me of Bellow. Both Nobel laureates, both consistently good in book after book.

  2. Yes, they both tackle the anxieties of modern life. I'm thinking of adding Humboldt's Gift or Augie March to my TBR for 2012 - I haven't read Bellow for years, having being somewhat obsessed with him at one stage, particularly the idea of writing a screenplay from Humboldt's Gift. The ironies would abound. Could make a great Woody Allen film.

  3. I'd certainly watch a 'Humboldt's Gift' movie. Whether it's a faithful adaptation or an updated one.

  4. Hi Seamus,

    I now want to try out reading the author Heinrich Böll. I enjoy Saul Bellow's writing and also Woody Allens. Thank you for your review -esp. like your closing lines.

  5. Thanks, Beginnings - I think you'll like Böll