Children are Civilians Too, by Heinrich Böll

Second paragraph of third story ("The Man with the Knives" / "Der Mann mit den Messern"):

`It makes me sick,' said Jupp quietly. `I've been working on the logical assumption that people who've paid for their tickets really want to see a show where life and limb are at stake — like at the Roman circuses — they want to be convinced of at least the possibility of bloodshed, know what I mean?' He picked up the knife and tossed it neatly against the top crossbar of the window, with such force that the panes rattled and threatened to fall out of the crumbling putty. This throw — confident and unerring — took me back to those hours of semi-darkness in the past when he had thrown his pocket-knife against the dugout post, from bottom to top and down again. `I'll do anything,' he went on, `to give the customers a thrill. I'll even cut off my ears, only it's hard to find anyone to stick them back on again, *and I'd rather be a prisoner of war again than live without ears* [this phrase omitted from my Penguin translation]. Here, I want to show you something.' He opened the door for me, and we went out into the hallway. A few shreds of wallpaper still clung to the walls where the glue was too stubborn for them to be ripped off and used for lighting the stove. After passing through a mouldering bathroom we emerged onto a kind of terrace, its concrete floor cracked and moss-covered. Jupp pointed upward. "Zum Kotzen", sagte Jupp leise. "Ich bin von der einleuchtenden Voraussetzung ausgegangen, daß die Leute, wenn sie an der Kasse ihr Geld bezahlt haben, am liebsten solche Nummern sehen, wo Gesundheit oder Leben auf dem Spiel stehen — genau wie im römischen Zirkus —, sie wollen wenigstens wissen, daß Blut fließen könnte, verstehst du?' Er hob das Messer auf und warf es mit einem knappen Schwingen des Armes in die oberste Fenstersprosse, so heftig, daß die Scheiben klirrten und aus dem bröckeligen Kitt zu fallen drohten. Dieser Wurf — sicher und herrisch — erinnerte mich an jene düsteren Stunden der Vergangenheit, wo er sein Taschenmesser die Bunkerpfosten hatte hinaui und hinunterklettern lassen. "Ich will ja alles tun", fuhr er fort, 'um den Herrschaften einen Kitzel zu verschaffen. Ich will mir die Ohren abschneiden, aber es findet sich leider keiner, der sie mir wieder ankleben könnte; und ohne Ohren leben — da wäre ich doch lieber in der Gefangenschaft geblieben. Komm mal mit.' Er riß die Tür auf, ließ mich vorgehen, und wir traten ins Treppenhaus, wo die Tapetenfetzen nur noch an jenen Stellen hafteten, wo man sie der Stärke des Leimes wegen nicht hatte abreißen können, um den Ofen mit ihnen anzuzünden. Dann durchschritten wir ein verkommenes Badezimmer und kamen auf eine Art Terrasse, deren Beton brüchig und von Moos bewachsen war. Jupp deutete in die Luft.

I'm very familiar with the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, the political foundation affiliated with Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, and have actually written for them. However, I didn't know a lot about Böll himself, except that he wrote a book about visiting Ireland in the 1950s and won the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1972, it turns out). I acquired this collection of short stories years ago and got around to reading it last month.

I must say they blew me away. They are mostly very short indeed – 26 stories in 185 pages, so roughly 7 pages each on average. They were published between 1947 and 1951, mostly in 1950. They cover the horror of being a German soldier in the war, and of being a German after the war; of the disintegration of civilisation and humanity, and the dreadfulness of being oneself an integral part of that. It's unflinching and unsentimental, and full of memorable images (not all of which seem to have got translated) – the shreds of wallpaper, for instance, in the paragraph above. Most of the stories are vignettes, but some have a distinct twist in the tail. I'll look out for more by Böll; his best known books are The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum and The Clown.

This was the non-genre fiction book that had lingered longest on my shelves. Next on that list is Dear Old Dead, by Jane Haddam.