Monday, 8 December 2014

The End of a Mission

The End of a Mission - Heinrich Böll
(Translated by Leila Vennewitz)

My second choice for GermanLitMonth allowed me to continue to make my way through the collected works of Heinrich Böll. The End of a Mission is the fourth Böll novel I've reviewed here and there fifth I've read. The Safety Net; Group Portrait with Lady; The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum are all featured on the blog but my first Böll, and my favourite thus far Billiards at Half Past Nine was read before I started blogging.

As with many (all?) of his other books The End of a Mission has, as it's central concern the relationship between post war Germany and what happened during that war. How has it affected community, memory, the relationship with law and the state? How can/is language calibrated to reveal/hide it? It is a satire, or perhaps more accurately a farce in which the blind, remorseless and often senseless needs of bureaucracy collide with individuals and community in the small town of Birglar.
The plot seems strangely personal. The novel concerns the trial of Johann Gruhl, who is a master carpenter and wood-carver, and his son Georg who has been forced into military service but is more concerned with art. They burn an army jeep that the son has been sent out on a mission in. The personal connection? Böll's own father was a woodcarver and Böll too, although in more appalling circumstances, was forced into military service. In the novel Johann is pursued by the tax authorities and the bailiff as his craft and way of doing business is anachronistic in the days of the economic miracle prevailing in post-war Germany. This despite the fact that he is a gifted craftsman in high demand. His main problem is that he generates few legitimate expenses so that all his income is profit and subject to very high taxation as such. Böll's own father suffered a similar fate during the depression and lost his house and was often visited by bailiffs. (Biographical details from this LINK.)

I say strangely because this is a very impersonal seeming novel, narrated from the middle distance in voices distorted by habit and officiousness. The effectiveness of tone in the novel is hard to judge in translation. I was unsure whether the clumsy prose was deliberate or a failure to catch the difficult art of parody. As the trial progresses we are subjected to a number of asides on the most irrelevant details, perhaps reaching it's apogee when County Traffic Inspector Heuser enters a digression about "a differential in the use of the highway surface" running past the scene of the 'crime'. Further extraneous details, such as the apparent agreement between the drivers of a beer truck and a cement truck, which seems to have led to the beer truck drivers drive being newly cemented are introduced as elements of the disturbance caused by the Gruhls.

The title and the early set up suggest that the Gruhls may have been doing some secret work for the government/army. Why else is there an observer in the courtroom? Why have all the papers seemingly agreed under some gentle pressure to pull back on their coverage of the case? Can it just be the influence of antique owners? - "wasn't it a good thing for the Gruhls to come before a lenient judge and be spared publicity? Furthermore, it would be a blessing for all lovers of antique furniture in Birglar County and beyond if Gruhl senior were free again - his skilful hands, his infallible taste, once more at the service of the community." Or is it the case that there is a strange seepage of hippie consciousness into this small conservative town and that the Gruhls really "felt a bit chilly and wanted to warm up with a Happening"?

The theatre of a court case suggests the pursuit of truth but in this case the two accused have made full confessions, so full that the arresting officer was taken aback. It is of limited interest to the locals because they know everything already. So the case, if it resembles anything, is a kind of morality play where the degree of punishment is to be decided and to do so the morality of all agents is explored. Bureaucracy; the taxation system; the military; religion; community; work; war; sexual politics; power; art; progress; community: all of these are represented at various stages by the different players in what is a collision of frivolity and high seriousness.

There is a sense that the structure of society, and particularly the army, tends to crush the people for whom the system is supposed to operate. There is a need to constantly beware of those who claim some kind of moral authority, represented particularly by First Lieutenant Heimüller, Gruhl junior's superior officer. He is driven by a sense of the sacrosanct nature of the army, and religion (and is known in the barracks as "Robert the Pious".). He is offended by the vulgarity of the colloquial and talks of a "German of the élite", saying that "he was not afraid to use the word." One of the most sympathetic characters is Father Kolb, the local priest, who is far from sanctimonious and says to the Lieutenant, that "it is from wood like yours that the best communists are carved." Fr Kolb disputes that there is any link between religious practice and character when asked "about Gruhl's religious attitude". He also says that the "Church's doctrine had evolved from the necessity of coming to terms with the powers of the world, and it was not theology but compromise." Having received a full report on the trial, the president (it is not made clear where he is president of) rings the bishop to warn him that such unconventional ideas had been aired in public, well in front of two members of the public. The bishop "choked and couldn't get his breath back; he had to cut short the conversation before he could tell Grellber that Kolb customarily delivered himself of his 'strange views' on Sundays, in the presence of some two or three hundred members of his flock."

Another of the witnesses, Private First Class Kuttke, talks of "the armed farces" and how Gruhl had suffered in the army from a "'quaternity of the absurd' -pointlessness, unproductiveness, boredom, laziness.." Kuttke himself "considered these to be the sole aim and object of any army." He is merely marking time until he gets a pay off after twelve year's service. At the end of the day Böll seems to argue that human failings are far less dangerous than blindly implementing or following systems. A system, to work, must allow for and encompass vices and failings and allow for differences if it is to engage the best that people have to offer.

...And I can't be arsed writing any more..... Accommodate that!


  1. Boll's name has come up a few times during German Lit Month, and I'd like to read him at some point. For some reason, your review and description of the novel reminds me of writers such as Kafka and Dostoevsky (although I might be wide of the mark there). I think it's the counterpoint between satire and high seriousness/bureaucracy. In any case, this does sounds intriguing. That's a great cover, almost like an image from Monty Python.

    1. It is very Monty Python, isn't it? It's a 1978 reprint so that may well be the inspiration.
      Böll's way of writing from the middle distance makes him feel different to the more wracked fictions of Dostoevsky and Kafka, even though the subject is very similar.