Review Post 43 – All Pointless on the Eastern Front

Another short book by one of my favourite German authors and yet another tale of the pointlessness of armed conflict.  I am afraid that if you read any amount of twentieth-century German literature, you’ll see that Basil Fawlty’s classic advice is (understandably) rarely heeded.  Sorry – I will be mentioning the war…

*****
Wo warst du, Adam? is an early work by Nobel-Prize-Winning author Heinrich Böll and is a cross between a novel and a loosely-connected collection of short stories, held together by the figure of Feinhals, a German soldier on the eastern European front in the Second World War.  Although Feinhals is the central point for all the tales, the reader occasionally loses sight of him and follows other characters, usually tangentially connected to the main protagonist.  Throughout the book, the viewpoint shifts, sometime several times within a single story as one character encounters another, who then becomes the focal point.

This apparent whimsical nature of the book fits in nicely with the subject matter.  The people here are subject to the vagaries of war, living life on an hourly basis (whether they are soldiers, civilians or prisoners) and rarely having control of their own destinties.  At times, it seems as if Feinhals is a sort of Angel of Death, with his presence closely followed by destruction and slaughter.  Of course, in war, you can only cheat death so many times…

The beauty of this book is the way Böll describes the futility of war without needing to run the risk of glamourising the conflict by portraying the actual fighting.  The stories circle skilfully around the main theatre of conflict, instead concentrating on the peripheral, but still tragic events.  From a wounded officer who may or may not be feigning madness, to a misguided tank attack on a defenceless (and almost completely deserted) hospital barracks; from an aborted offensive where the major casualties are laid low by exploding wine bottles and chronic stomach trouble, to a blossoming love story cut short by a sudden order to move on to the frontline: war affects many more people than those forced to participate in the actual fighting.

However, two of the stories particularly bring home the horror and pointlessness of it all.  In the first, a lorryload of Jews are brought to what they are told is a ‘transition camp’; in reality, a concentration camp in the end stages of the war, where the officers are beginning to wind up proceedings.  In the hands of a racist, mentally unstable commandant, the prisoners have only one chance to escape from their fate.  You see, the one weakness of the commanding officer is music…

The second, the penultimate and, perhaps, central chapter of the book, is set on the Slovak-Polish border, where a bridge central to German troop movements (and blown up by partisans earlier in the war) is to be reconstructed.  The story is told partly through the eyes of Feinhals and partly through those of a Slovakian innkeeper, a woman who finds it hard to believe that the men loafing around in her establishment are being paid so much for doing so little.  Just as the bridge has been rebuilt, news suddenly comes of a Soviet advance not far to the East.  Suddenly, the decision to put the bridge back up doesn’t seem to be such a good one.

*****
This is my sixth Böll book in the last two years, and I’m sure there’ll be many more.  His style is subtle and understated, and while there is a preoccupation with certain twentieth-century occurrences, this is understandable.  Even in his later books, where there is less of a focus on the (now distant) wars, echoes of the time remain in the presence in public life of people who managed to overcome their wartime behaviour to make it back into the political ranks of German society.  War, as horrifying and pointless as it is, does seem to be good for one thing – outstanding literature.

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2 thoughts on “Review Post 43 – All Pointless on the Eastern Front

  1. Have requested this in translation from the state library. The only copy in the WA public library system it seems! Not sure they'll grant my request, but I hope so, as it sounds right up my reading street. The only copy I could find for sale in Oz is $72. Rare as rocking horse poop.

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  2. One advantage of being able to speak and read German then (my state-supported BA in Modern Languages is useful for something after all!). I've grown to love Böll's understated style, and I'm very happy the Book Depository is a source of French/German books in the original language at a very cheap price – this cost me a hell of a lot less than $72 🙂

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