Lone Wolf

The Mad Dog

by Heinrich Böll, translated by Breon Mitchell
St. Martin's, 176 pp., $19.95

The earliest work in The Mad Dog, a collection of hitherto unpublished stories by Heinrich Böll, is “Youth on Fire.” It was written in 1937, when the author was nineteen years old, and is, as we say uneasily, interesting: “the most surprising story” here, according to Breon Mitchell’s zealous introduction, but not wholly surprising. A sensitive young man, disgusted by the world’s ugliness, is thinking of killing himself, when he is approached by a beautiful seventeen-year-old prostitute, who points to a crucifix round her neck and announces: “I come in the name of this sign.” Her mission, “under the mask of sin,” is to save young men on the brink of spiritual ruin. She sits “in mystical beauty, leaning forward slightly, with the suffering visage of an apocalyptic angel,” while in a rush of shame the young man covers his face with his hands.

The two fall in love and vow “to leave this squalor and begin a Christian life of poverty.” Other intense, idealistic young people join them, including a famous woman pianist. A lot of coffee is drunk, a lot of cigarettes are smoked, long speeches are made. The story, we take it, ends happily, hopefully. The atmosphere might be characterized as modified Dostoevskyan, strongly suffused with adolescent romanticism. Indeed there is a weird passing reference to a literary critic who once stated that Dostoevsky’s greatness lay in his being a truly gifted disciple of Goethe: as a result somebody fired three shots at the critic’s “laurel-laden head.” The contrast between the godliness of the young people and the godlessness of the times is radical; the godlessness we can believe in (it is always with us), and even the melodramatic touches (“The cold winter rain that murders the poor was still falling”), but not quite the godliness, with its air of a pious lithograph incongruously hung in a haunt of intellectual dropouts. The story demonstrates how deeply Böll’s youthful brand of Catholicism ran in its mixture of devoutness and revolt.

The escapee from an unspecified prison camp in “The Fugitive” takes refuge, filthy and exhausted, in the house of a priest, who somewhat grudgingly gives him food and fresh clothing, and in return receives a lecture: “You soak in your certainties like a man in a bathtub of lukewarm water, indecisive, hardly daring to get out and dry off. But you forget that the water is turning cold according to inexorable laws, as cold as reality.” As he leaves, he tells the priest, “You wanted to know my crime…. There it is,” and he takes a “slim brochure” from the bookshelves. (What? A New Testament?) The priest makes the sign of the cross over him; he makes the sign of the cross over the priest. Outside, he senses God’s promise, “wherever any person suffers for the sake of the cross,” and “prayers formed in him like pure, steady flames rising from the garden of faith, hope, and love, innocent and beautiful as flowers.” There is no happy ending…

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