This book only goes for around 130 pages, yet the author is able, in such a short space of time, to outline a web of connections and misunderstandings surrounding what is effectively an open-and-shut case. Katharina is revealed as incredibly hard-working, overly shy and prudish, unwilling to open herself up, extremely sensitive and, at times, pedantic; however, Die ZEITUNG manages to twist the facts to fit the circumstances which they believe best suit their readers opinions, making the poor woman out to be a sex-crazed terrorist helping enemies of the state to escape justice. The style of writing Böll chose for this work lends itself to making the reader understand the frustration Katharina (and her friends) feels as the report style gives a certain detachment which allows us to view events more objectively than if they had been seen through the eyes of one of the main characters.
The setting is also vital for understanding the atmosphere of tension and the ferocity of the press at the time. The action takes place over the week of Karneval, which, in the Rheinland, is celebrated just as wildly as Mardi-Gras is enjoyed in Rio. For those who have never lived in Germany, this may be a little difficult to reconcile with the stereotypical image of Germans as practical and sensible, but during Karneval, anything goes. There is a strong feeling of freedom from everyday constraints, and the chance of sexual encounters, like Katharina’s uncharacteristic liaison, is greatly increased. In fact, I’ve even heard opinions saying that infidelities during Karneval don’t count as no-one is in their right mind…
Even more important is the fact that the action is set in 1974, in the middle of the Cold War and the era of terrorist attacks by the Rote Armee Fraktion and the Baader-Meinhof group. In a time of great uncertainty (as seen, unfortunately, throughout the world over the past ten years), we are always ready to jump at ghosts and pounce on the smallest sign of (imagined) betrayal. When even Katharina’s friends are being excoriated in the media for their imagined communist past, it is no wonder that the papers, and the reading public, are so keen to believe her a foreign spy, or, at the very least, a fifth columnist.
So, I ask you once again: if a newspaper reporter accused you of treason, hounded your mother to death and blamed you for it, dug up dirt on all your friends, rang you up and harrassed you sexually; in short, did everything posible to deprive you of the one thing you held dear in life, your honour, before turning up to an interview and suggesting that you might as well screw him… would you, if in possession of a gun, be able to resist the temptation of shooting him down?
Well, would you?