The Silent Angel
by Heinrich Böll, translated by Breon Mitchell
St. Martin’s, 182 pp., $19.95
Heinrich Böll’s very first novel, Der Engel Schwieg, has just appeared in a decent but uninspired translation by Breon Mitchell. It is called The Silent Angel, published by St. Martin’s Press, and described by their publicity department as “the rarest of literary finds—a previously unpublished novel by a Nobel Prize-winner.” Böll would have seen the irony of this daft recommendation on prestige grounds. Status, wealth, and prestige are the enemy in all he wrote, fiction and nonfiction alike. And he might have been amused by the pun in the press’s cable address: Saintmart. The irreconcilable conflict between saintliness or even just plain humanity on the one hand, and the market (mart) on the other was the message he proclaimed. Besides, St. Martin is a particularly suitable patron saint for this story, in which a rich young man chooses to give his life for another’s, and leaves all his possessions to the poor.
Der Engel Schwieg was not published until 1992, more than forty years after Böll wrote it, and seven after he died. It was his first novel, though he had published a few well-received short stories and a harrowing novella, The Train Was on Time, about a German soldier traveling to the Eastern front and foreseeing his own death somewhere between Lvov and Czernowicz. His publisher commissioned a novel—to become The Silent Angel—and then had doubts about the depressing nature of the story. Böll felt a “Commitment to the Literature of Ruins” (the title of an essay he was to publish in 1952); and that, in 1951, was thought to be too painful for German readers just crawling out from under them. Böll withdrew the manuscript.
He died a slightly passé guru in 1985, having been one of Germany’s most impressive writers in the Fifties and Sixties, and one of the two most prestigious and influential ones in the Sixties and Seventies (the other, of course, being Günter Grass). He was born in 1917 into a large, middle-class, liberal Catholic family in Cologne. Their cabinet-making business failed during the Depression of 1929, and in 1937 when Böll left school (where he had been the only boy in his class not to join the Hitlerjugend) he was apprenticed to a bookseller instead of going to the university. In 1939 he was drafted into the army and served on the Eastern front and in France. He was wounded several times, and finally captured by the Americans.
He was released in September 1945 and returned to his wife (they had married in 1942). Their first child had just been born; two months later he watched the little boy die. An infant’s death helps to shape the plot in The Silent Angel, and Böll generally writes about children with an aching tenderness, as though their fragility was always on his mind.
The despair and squalor of the war, especially on the Eastern front, and the grim “hunger years” in the cold and filthy ruins …