Book Review: The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll

“Stop it before it grows! Look out, for Freedom of the Press is the core of everything: well-being, social progress, democracy, pluralism, diversity of opinions. And whoever attacks The Paper attacks us all.”

69880Read: 8th March 2018

Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes 27 Seconds. Contains 1890 words.

My Rating: 4 Stars

DescriptionIn an era in which journalists will stop at nothing to break a story, Henrich Böll’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum has taken on heightened relevance.

A young woman’s association with a hunted man makes her the target of a journalist determined to grab headlines by portraying her as an evil woman. As the attacks on her escalate and she becomes the victim of anonymous threats, Katharina sees only one way out of her nightmare.

Turning the mystery genre on its head, the novel begins with the confession of a crime, drawing the reader into a web of sensationalism, character assassination, and the unavoidable eruption of violence.

Note: I don’t know much about East Germany and West Germany, though in the past few days after reading and watching few fictional works, I did research few things and I have marked few things that I would read in the future about totalitarian society and cold war(I’m sure, I have studied about it in history class in 9th standard, yes I’m very sure), and all that goes along with these topics. But that will take some time. So, whatever I say here is what I learned by reading the articles available on the internet and watching movies. So, if I’m wrong somewhere in saying something then please consider it as a very innocent mistake on my part, though I don’t think there would be anything of that sort.

To begin with, I would say, I really didn’t enjoy the writing, for me, it was dry or at least something was odd about it or maybe it was just new for me. I never read anything written in this format, so quite possibly that is the reason. But that doesn’t mean, I didn’t enjoy the story, I really did.

Recently I watched a German movie called, The Lives of Others, it is based in 1984 East Germany, which was ruled by GDR(German Democratic Republic). I must say, it was a really interesting movie and I loved watching it, consider it one of my favorites. But let me tell you why I’m talking about it. In East Germany ruled by GDR, things were quite tight, there were no elections(or at least of no use) and no free speech. Artists worked and executed projects and lived in their own space and underground locations. And the ones who went against them were not treated really well. GDR applied wide censorship during their existence from 1949 to 1990. All the publications were governmentally controlled and potential publications would have to pass through multiple stages of censorship. Artists lost their inspiration because they were controlled, those who were thought to be going against the government were watched. Privacy of the citizens was exploited. Government surveillance affected people’s jobs, personal freedom, and basic aspects of their lives. The East German secret police had a file on almost everyone and it was said that a large portion of the population was an informant at one time or another. East Germans lived in fear under Stasi surveillance, it was the most hated and feared institution under East German Communist Government. There actually was a terribly claustrophobic atmosphere behind that wall, things were repressive and quite boring, only one thing, the life of the people was secured. This movie showed how important love, life, and freedom are. Though all of these basic aspects were controlled during that time. Now you must be thinking why I’m talking about all this anyway.

Well, during that time things were different on the other side of the wall and that was West Germany ruled by Federal Republic of Germany(FRG). Well, unlike East Germany, West Germany was really westernized and in many ways similar to the USA. And life was not as tough as it was in East Germany. Things were colorful on the side of West while grey on the side of East.

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, is based in 1974 West Germany(now you see where I’m going? no?…okay read on). I discussed that movie because that movie and this book are based on two contrasting situations, while both of them really deals with same problems. That is why I read this book, because it intrigued me, already the idea of life in East Germany was fermenting at the back of my mind and then I came across this book and I read about it and instantly I wanted to read it.

Now you may wonder why I only talked about, freedom of speech and nothing else. Well, I don’t know anything else, this is something I came across and I read it and I viewed it. So, it is only acceptable for me to talk about things I know. I’m not saying anything against East Germany, I literally typed, good things about East Germany and this popped up 8 Things that were better in East Germany. Neither did I live there nor was I born.

But you should also notice that freedom of speech is not the only thing I talked about, I also talked about life, love, and freedom. Only that one side of the wall was much stricter and the other more liberal. However; we can’t say it turned out any better(hold your horses, I understand it was better) at least in the case of Katharina Blum. However; things weren’t really as golden as they may seem and they are still not and it can be said for most of the parts of the world. The problems are not intricate to one country or one place but they prevail nearly everywhere.

Now, let me talk about the book.

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is not only a powerful story but also shows how people with power can really disturb and abuse a person.

The other question it raises is on freedom of the press and when this freedom can be too much. The book deals with political and social paradoxes that affects a person on a very personal level, by abusing them emotionally and depriving them of human dignity.

The writer also talks about how at that time journalists and police, had a lot of power in their hands, police was not afraid to turn violent and journalists were ruthless when it came to digging up information on someone and to come up with stories. And this was very well portrayed in the book.

Katherina is shown as a woman of strong convictions who really values her rights and makes her own decision for her life and also her sexuality. However; we can also see that men don’t really like her convictions and threaten her on every chance they get, there were few instances where they tried to dehumanize her or hurt her with the use of language and twisted words, whether on paper or in person.

When Katherina was questioned by Beizmenne for the first time, where he wanted to find out her relationship with the criminal, he started with asking her a controversial question.

Beizmenne allegedly asked the maddeningly composed Katharina as she leaned against her counter: “Well, did he fuck you?”

And only afterward he looked around for pieces of evidence that would give away some clues.

Similarly, when Tötges(the journalist who ruined her life with his irresponsible journalism) came to meet her near the end of the book, he entered her house and said:

‘Why do you look at me like that, Blumikins, as if you’re scared out of your wits? How about us having a bang for a start?’

Oh, he did get a bang, just not the one he wanted.

This story also plays out how violence develops and to what extent it can lead and how it can ruin the life of the person and people who are associated with that person. The story had this atmosphere of persistent underlying anxiety and the writer created that very well, or at least I felt anxious while reading it.

One thing that was very apparent in the story is that the media really didn’t care if she was innocent or not but only that she was now a story for them. How many times we come across stories that were really developed to destroy a person, for some people it’s business, it brings in more views. They use their rights to exploit the image of a person, they twist the language and sensationalize the whole thing. It happens even today, and what is more disappointing is people like that kind of news, humans are miserable creatures that way, we tend to find some kind of pleasure when we see the downfall of others and society never cease a chance to destroy a person.

“Man should not be in the service of society, society should be in the service of man. When the man is in the service of society, you have a monster state, and that’s what is threatening the world at this minute.” — Joseph Campbell

In the story, we see how people who preached about sociopolitical ethics and values started going after Katharina and also after people who were associated with her. I think the above quote really helps in understanding a very intricate point about individuals and society. I think society can make or break a man, but what I find funny is how when a child is born, he is conditioned with how things really work in the society and he is taught about right and wrong and what does it mean to be human. After spending so much time in the society one can at least expect people’s faith in them, and there is no question in saying that faith has the power to heal a person when he is broken, but during this time when the person needs that society to be on his/her side, society turns its back.

In our world, we have forgotten the true meaning of faith in it’s most fundamental form. We put our faith on institutions, rules, and ethics(which to be true have been made many times and destroyed many times) instead of ourselves. Now consider everyone in the society doing the same thing. We let the world dictate us(each one of us in some way or the other) of what is wrong and right without giving a thought about the agendas behind the organization or groups or individual who is informing us. People in masses turn against each other, in worst case turn against an individual, and together they label, judge and discriminate.

In the case of Katherina Blum, media made the false accusations against her, and they led people into believing that she was a communist, and twisted the comments made by her friends and family in a way that everything sounded against her. They provoked the society in a way that everyone turned against her, they acted irrationally, called her names, and made indecent remarks on her. She received threat letters and anonymous call, some for sex and others for threatening her. Everyone tried to tarnish her dignity and honor.

Freedom of Speech and Press is really important and I’m glad we have it, but freedom comes with a responsibility which I think everyone should take, and when an organization or a group has a social standing where they have a great impact on people, or have the power to influence people, then I think it’s really important that they take responsibility of everything they are letting out is true and not just some made up story and that they should not abuse the power they have by making intrusion into human privacy and by abusing an individual emotionally.

“Because we are human, in everything we do we have a choice. And that choice is to reduce ourselves to an animal in the jungle, or to elevate ourselves to the Creator that gave us life.” (I read it somewhere, I don’t know where.)

As for the book, in the end they did bring out the beast in her and there we witness the unavoidable eruption of violence. And that is one way we turn innocents into criminals, turn against them, destroy them and bring out the beast in them.


Book Review: The Fall by Albert Camus

“Men are never convinced of your reasons, of your sincerity, of the seriousness of your sufferings, except by your death. So long as you are alive, your case is doubtful; you have a right only to their skepticism.”

WP_20180305_13_50_44_ProRead: 11th November 2017 and 6th March 2018

Estimated Reading Time: 12 minutes. Contains 2500 words approx.

My Rating: 5 Stars

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Description: Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a successful Parisian barrister, has come to recognize the deep-seated hypocrisy of his existence. His epigrammatic and, above all, discomforting monologue gradually saps, then undermines, the reader’s own complacency.

“I’ll tell you a great secret, dear fellow. Don’t wait for the last judgement, it takes place every day.”

Sartre said, ‘perhaps the most beautiful and the least understood work’ of Camus, but as it turned out this book totally spoke to me. Today, I read it for the second time, last time when I read it, I was in some kind of hurry and really didn’t look deep into this book, only this time while reading some other book, I understood few things and it only made sense for me to read it again.

I’m reading this book currently, “The Power of Myth” by Joseph Campbell and in this book his conversations with Bill Moyers about myths led me to few ideas and gave me a very different perspective about few things that Camus is trying to convey in his book, The Fall. I had so many “ahha” moments while reading this book, that I had to read, The Fall, again. So, I did just that.


Page 47, The Journey Inward

The title of the book can be read in several different ways, the biblical story of Adam and Eve, human struggle with sin(again a relation with Christian theology), the fall of the character, and fall of that woman(in a very literal sense).

Camus in this book takes the reader into the darkness of human condition.

The character is guilty of a crime of passivity and inability to act. The central scene of the bridge kind of drives the whole story, where he does not act and from there we witness his downfall, The Fall.

“Reaching the end of the bridge, I turned along the quai toward Saint-Michel, where I was then living. I had already gone some fifty meters when I heard the sound – a sound which, despite the distance, seemed immense in the silence of the night- of a body hitting the water. I stopped dead, but without turning round. Almost at once, I heard a shout, repeated several times, which was also travelling down the river, the abruptly stopped. The ensuing silence seemed interminable, as though the night has stopped dead. I wanted to run, but couldn’t move. I was trembling, I think, with cold and shock. I told myself that I had to act quickly, but I felt an irresistible weakness flood through my body. I forgot what I thought at the moment. ‘Too late, too far away…’, or something like that. I kept on listening, not moving. Then slowly, I walked away through the rain. I reported the incident to no one.”

So, I was reading this chapter called ‘Sacrifice and bliss’ in the book, The Power of Myth, where Campbell talks about an incident, about a policeman saving the life of a boy who is trying to jump. Here he is talking about Sacrifice.

Joseph Campbell: “Well, a police car was on its way up early, a little road that used to go up there(he is talking about Golden Gate Bridge), and they saw just beyond the railing that keeps cars from rolling over, a young man actually clearly about to jump and prepare himself to jump. The police car stopped. The policeman on the right jumps out to grab the boy and grabs him just as he jumped and was himself being pulled over, and would have gone over if the second cop hadn’t gotten around, grabbed him and pull the two of them back. There was a long description of this, it was a marvelous thing, in the newspapers at that time.

And the policeman was asked, “Why didn’t you let go? I mean, you would have lost your life?” And you see what had happened to that man, this is what’s known as one pointed meditation everything else in his life dropped off. His duty to his family, his duty to his job, his duty to his own career, all of his wishes and hopes for life, just disappeared and he was about to go. And his answer was, “I couldn’t let go. If I had let that young man go, I could not have lived another day of my life.”

There is a saying, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” which can also be interpreted as, Love your neighbor because he is yourself. Campbell also talked about Schopenhauer’s metaphysical realization that you and other are one and that our true reality is in our identity and unity with all life. So, when you let the other person die in front of you without you acting upon it then you to die with that person.

The passive response of this character in that situation, his inability to act, to save a life caused him all the sufferings, it is not that those sufferings were not part of him, but after this incident, he came face to face with them. He realized that all this time he was wearing a mask for others to see. He wanted to see himself above everyone, but now he knew that he was a hypocrite, and he was not the one he let everyone see. He was ashamed of his duplicity.

“I found myself on a cruise ship – on the top of deck, of course. Suddenly, far off, I noticed a black spot on the iron-grey ocean. I immediately turned away and my heart started to beat faster. When I forced myself to look, the black spot had vanished. I was going to shout, to call for help – ridiculously – when I saw it again. It was one of those patches of rubbish that ships leave in their wake. Yet I had not been able to bear looking at it: I immediately thought of a drowned person.”

His failure to save that woman haunted him for life. And now only his death could relieve him. He thought about suicide, but it was no fun for him, as he said, I like life, that’s my real weakness.

Also, he thought that people would judge him for that as well and he didn’t like getting judged by others. He wanted to avoid that at all cost.

” ‘He killed himself because he could not bear to…’ Oh, my good friend, how feeble is the imagination of men. They always think that people commit suicide for a reason. But one can very well commit suicide for two reasons. No, that idea doesn’t enter their head.” 

And now not only he was guilty of not saving the woman but also about his duplicity, he heard laughter everywhere and thought that everyone was laughing at him, judging him. He didn’t like that, he didn’t want to be laughed at, so he got away from everyone he knew. And first time in his life he felt that he was living a life of double and no more he wanted to continue it.

“So much so that we rarely confide in those who are better than we are; rather, we avoid their company. Most of the time, on the contrary, we confess to those who are like us and who share our weaknesses. This means that we do not want to correct ourselves to be improved: for that, first of all, we should have to be judged and found wanting. All we need is to be pitied and encouraged in our course. In short, we would like at the same time to be no longer guilty and not taking the effort to purify ourselves.” 

In his monologue, Jean-Baptiste Clamence takes the reader on a journey which he took in order to solve his biggest problem and that was Judgement. Here he talks about, love, sexual conquests, debauchery(meaningless sex) and infuse it with bigger ideas of freedom, slavery, and innocence, and most importantly his frustration with humanity.

Don Juanism:

“Some people shout: ‘Love me!’ Others: ‘Don’t love me!’ But there is a group, the worst and most miserable, who say: ‘Don’t love me, but be faithful!'”

Camus’ reflection on Don Juanism can be seen in this book as well(after his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus).

In the starting of the book also we can see Clamence as a womanizer, who loved to be with different women and seeks pleasure in seducing them and binding them just for himself, while he fools around with other women.

“So true is this that even when some of them provide me with only a small degree of pleasure, I still tried to resume our relations from time to time, helped no doubt by that peculiar desire which is stimulated by absence, followed by a suddenly rediscovered intimacy; but also to make sure that the bond between us was still there and that it was up to me alone to revive it. Sometimes, I would even go so far as to make them swear that they would not belong to any other man, in order to set my mind at rest on that point once and for all…

…But by swearing, they freed me while binding themselves. Once they would not be anyone else’s, I could bring myself to break with them – something that, otherwise, it was almost always impossible for me to do.”— Oh how I cringed while reading this, I also cringed when I read about Don Juan in The Myth of Sisyphus, kind of makes me hate men, but then we also have Don Juana, so I can’t really complaint.

But later in the book, he takes refuse among women and alcohol, they made him forget his suffering or I would rather say his life crisis, at least for a while, or at least when he was in their company.

“Because I desired eternal life, I slept with whores and drank for whole nights on end. The next morning, of course, I had the bitter taste of mortality in my mouth; but for long hours I had glided blissfully.”

On Freedom, Slavery, and Innocence:

“Surely the great thing that stops us escaping from it is that we are the first to condemn ourselves. So we must start by extending condemnation to everyone, without discrimination, so as to start extenuating it.”

I’m innocent so I’m free, because if I was guilty then I would be in a prison, but since I’m not in a prison, I’m innocent. But by saying all of this to yourself, you really don’t solve the problem, you are still you and you do know what is true. A person may approve himself to be innocent but even then deep down he knows what he truly is and then even though he has his freedom, he dies in the prison of his own thoughts. So, for Clamence even his freedom didn’t help him escape his problems, and for him, it turned out to be a burden in the long run. Now, it was not only the judgement of others he feared but also his personal judgement. You can fool people into believing what you want them to believe in, but how can you fool yourself once you know yourself.

“I didn’t know that freedom is not a reward or a decoration that you toast in champagne… Oh, no! On the contrary, it’s hard graft and a long-distance run, all alone, very exhausting…

…Alone in a dreary room, alone in the dock before the judges, and alone to make up your mind, before yourself and before the judgement of others. At the end of every freedom there is a sentence, which is why freedom is too heavy to bear, especially when you have a temperature, or you are grieving, or you love nobody.”

Since freedom didn’t work for him because it put a burden on him to prove himself to be innocent over and over again. So, he became a supporter of slavery, he thought it was better to accept your guilt, give up your freedom and submit yourself, he now supported the idea that no one really is innocent, everyone is guilty of something, then why bury yourself in constant obligation of proving yourself innocent, when in reality you are not.

“In any case, we cannot be certain of anyone’s innocence, while we can pronounce everyone guilty. Each man bears witness to the crime of all the others: this is my faith and hope.” 

According to him, it is better to declare your guilt so as to avoid judgement because now what is there for other people to judge. Clamence said, everyone, is riding the same boat, and he makes the reader reflect on his own faults and crisis. He said he is only superior to other people because he knows that he is on that boat and now all he could do is to make people realize that they are also riding the same boat as himself.

“The more I accuse myself, the more I have the right to judge you. Better still: I incite you to judge yourself, which relieves me by that much more. My dear fellow, we are strange and miserable creatures and we have only to go back over our lives to find any number of opportunities to astonish and shock ourselves.”

Camus in this book takes his reader on a ride of self-reflection and universality of human suffering. And in the process also confesses his true being, again as the narrator said, I accuse myself and I incite you to judge yourself. In all this turmoil, he makes the reader see the fall of this character, Jean-Baptiste Clamence and uncovers a person who at the beginning looks flawless and of high morals but within the layers, he is just another monster waiting to be discovered. In this journey, Camus doesn’t give the reader any answer, or any possible solution to solve the problem, but what he does is show the reader everything that doesn’t really work and shows him the absurdity of the whole problem. With the fall of Clamence, Camus actually gives his reader a way to save himself.

“I was wrong to tell you that the main thing was to avoid judgement. The main thing is to be able to let oneself do anything, while from time to time loudly declaring one’s own unworthiness. I allow myself everything, once again, and this time without laughing. I haven’t changed my way of life: I still love myself and I still use people. It’s just that confessing my sins permits me to start again with a lighter heart and to gratify myself twice, firstly enjoying my nature, and then a delicious repentance.”