BOOKS / Telling it the way it was

THE SILENT ANGEL by Heinrich Boll trs Breon Mitchell, Deutsch £14.99
HERE, nearly 10 years after his death, is Heinrich Boll's first novel, returned to him in the early 1950s by his publishers and for a time believed to be lost. It is set in the embers of Germany during "the days of capitulation" in 1945. The silen t angel of the title is a statue, dust-covered but otherwise intact - a symbol both of loss and of hope. It smiles ambiguously at the hero, a soldier, clearly based on Boll himself, as he returns to his broken city to pick among the ruins.

The publishers didn't like the book. The German public, Boll was warned, wanted to forget the war and rebuild. Boll had a go at revising it, but in the end put the novel aside, reworking some of the material into other novels instead.

It is a short book, and nothing much happens. The people we meet are so ill and torpid that they envy those who have died. The soldier, Hans, is looking for a woman, Elisabeth, to tell her that her husband has been executed. He is also looking for food, clothes and identity papers. Nuns and priests are kind to him. Kinder still is Regina, whose coat he has borrowed and who allows him to stay in her home. For weeks he lies in bed. Barely stronger than he is, she supports them both by selling blood. Exhausted and bereft (she has lost a baby, he a wife), they fall in love.

Eventually, Hans stirs himself and makes a living - stealing coal from trains. A nasty sub-plot develops, a fight over Elisabeth's husband's will, a family feud that also suggests the persistence of greed and corruption. But though the novel ends with a funeral, and with the image of a marble angel pressed into the mud of a graveyard, there is also a note of tentative optimism.

In another of his short early novels, The Bread of Those Early Years, Boll brilliantly describes a hero so haunted by his wartime experiences that he can never pass a baker without buying several loaves, just in case. Hunger is the great theme here, too:"Eating no longer seemed a pleasant necessity, but rather a dark law that forced them to swallow, to swallow at any cost, in a hunger that was never satisfied...". The prospect of having to beg for food and scavenge fuel for the next 40 years fills Hans with dread. People huddle for warmth. Every cigarette is precious. It is unimaginable to him that he might one day be comfortably off.

No wonder that, in 1950, Boll's novel should have held little appeal for a German nation beginning to move beyond guilt, hunger and poverty. Today, too, his book may struggle to find an audience. It's not just that Boll's reputation - built on his 1972 Nobel Prize and on novels such as The Lost Honour of Katerina Blum - has temporarily declined, but that no one wants to believe that this is what Germany was once like.

Yet the atmosphere which Boll evokes is utterly persuasive: the cold and the wolfish desperation, the reduction of humanity to an empty palm and open mouth. As a mood-portrait not only of Germany in 1945, but of parts of Eastern Europe in 1994, The Silent Angel deserves the widest readership.