Up in Smoke
By Toni Kan Onwordi
For a man who famously asserted that "meddling is the only way to stay relevant," one who produced almost a dozen novels and more than ten dozen works of short fiction in a writing career that spanned almost four decades, Heinrich Böll was fascinated by and found himself engaging with multifarious subjects as diverse as childhood and school ("What's to Become of the Boy?"), freedom and free speech ("Protest and Encouragement), war and its effects on soldiers and their widows ("The Train was on Time" and "The Unguarded House"), as well as sensational journalism and the destruction of the individual ("The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum"), amongst others.
But there were a few subjects that he was fixated upon. The latter would include trains and train stations, war and "the war", and then cigarettes.
In the short fiction of Heinrich Böll, trains never stop rumbling through the tracks, trundling into villages and cities as familiar as Dresden and Dortmund and far flung places with strange names like Nikopol, Jassy and Kalinovka. Trains are oftentimes the noisy but unobtrusive co-narrators of his many short stories.
Train journeys are therefore, in the short fiction of Heinrich Böll, representative of man's journey into the unknown, they are the mythical canoe bearing the hooded Charon and his un-ceasing fares: the hapless and the damned across the river Acheron to the underworld.
In the novella, "The Train Was on Time," Heinrich Böll's first published major work, Andreas gets on the train and as the train begins to move opens his mouth and screams, "I don't want to die, but the terrible thing is that I am going to die...soon!"
Train stations on the other hand represent rest stations, but they are rest stations which offer neither rest nor comfort. They are places where "the resounding voices" remind the damned and the hapless in their cold and impersonal voices shorn of emotion of an appointment with death and inevitable fate.
Train stations become, therefore, milestones on the road to perdition where those "resounding voices" of faceless people engaged in occupations that do not correspond to their level of education, as we learn in "This is Tibten," never fail to tell people "where they are."
Heinrich Böll was fascinated by war but his was not the romanticised view of war that Ernest Hemingway and Stephen Crane gave us. His view of war is sad and pitiable. A soldier for all of six years, Heinrich Böll was a man who went to war not because he wanted to but because he did not have the guts to say no. Heinrich Böll was a uniformed and gun-totting conscientious objector who got wounded several times on the front lines.
He was a soldier who though qualified to be an officer refused the commission and left six years later as a Lance Corporal.
His war time experiences marked him for life and made him a writer, forcing him to drop out of college in order to exorcise his demons by laying them bare on paper, an exorcism that would last a life time.
Heinrich Böll's stories are about war, but mostly about "the war," the one that was declared over in 1945 but which never really ended for him because wars really do not end, they merely grow silent and become nightmares.
Heinrich Böll battled with those nightmares all his life. On the large canvas of his stories, the war is always there, never in the background, always in the foreground, looming like a portent, obscuring everything else even when there is no direct mention of it in the narrative.
Like a whiff of something insidious in the air, the war is like the pungent smell of death that will not leave the room long after the corpse has been removed and the windows thrown open.
In "What's to Become of the Boy," the young Heinrich Böll, though tired of school and formal education, wishes he could escape the deluge, by staying on and extending the duration of his study because he "was determined not to learn for dying, which for many if not all German high school graduates had been preached as the highest goal in life."
And even with the war over he would return to the subject again and again, until achieving some measure of closure in the non-fictional narrative "The Jews of Drove."
Heinrich Böll's greatest fascination may, however, be cigarettes. In his stories, cigarettes are ever-present characters imbued with myriad qualities and attributes. They are friends, companions, comforters and even lovers. Cigarettes remind us of the characters' fragile emotional states. They are reminders of a time of lack and graft. They express character and help define situations and locales. Cigarettes are invaluable props in Heinrich Böll's drama of life and existence.
In a particularly memorable scene in "What's to Become of the Boy?" young Heinrich Böll recounts the story of how he is duped into taking home a pack filled with potato peelings instead of sorely needed cigarettes. Prior to that story, he had taken pains to explain in detail what different brands of cigarette cost in the open and black market at that time when the war was yet young.
In the short story, "Breaking the News" the young soldier steps into a room "where the odour of bad food and excellent cigars seemed to have settled permanently," while in "Pale Anna" when the young man loses his ardour he seeks his pleasure elsewhere: "I left the girl lying on the couch, lit a cigarette and went away."
In "A Case for Kop," a young boy scours the rail lines for cigarette stubs and finds none because the war is on and the soldiers have "stopped throwing away cigarette ends a long time ago... they were no longer generous with bread either." In "Recollections of a Young King", when the king dies, the valet approaches the new king and makes a plea: "May it please Your Majesty not to hold it against me that I once reported Your Majesty to his Excellency the Prime Minister for smoking."
In what is perhaps, Heinrich Böll's best short story, "Murke's Collected Silences" Murke asks Rina to "put just five more minutes' silence on the tape." Rina is exasperated by the request, but instead of storming out in anger she makes a request. "Oh, all right," said the girl, "but give me a cigarette at least."
Why are cigarettes so ever present in the stories of Heinrich Böll? It would not do to point to the fact that he began smoking as a teenager and did not quit till the end of his days. The answer lies maybe in the psyche of the author. In his youth, in the madness of the Nazi war, he had seen cigarettes assume a daunting stature as essential commodities and that image of something difficult to obtain never went away. It aroused what seems like a hunger that would never be assuaged.
In his short fiction, Heinrich Böll, the author, becomes no more than a reflection of his hungry character in "The Taste of Bread" (the same scene is recreated differently in the novel "The Silent Angel" written in 1949 but published posthumously in 1992) who when he chances upon a nun and a cupboard full of bread consoles himself with "what ever happens, I'll be eating bread" and when he gets to eat the bread, the touch of the bread on his lips is like "a caress."
The taste of cigarettes is a caress for Heinrich Böll's characters and the pleasure and comfort the characters derive from cigarettes is best captured in the scene in "Where Were You, Adam?" where the Jewish girl who is being transported in a van has a cigarette stuck between her lips. It is her first time and when she pulls on it, she finds it "very refreshing and very soothing."
© 2003 Toni Kan Onwordi
First published on the homepage of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Nigeria Office
Toni Kan Onwordi was on a four-month "artist in residence" programme at the Heinrich Böll House in Langenbroich, Germany, in 2003.