Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Reading Notes: The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum

(This post is part of the Once a Month Book Club link up over at A Permanent Flux. This month's theme is Something from School.)

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (Heinrich Boll, 1974) was one of the set English texts when I was in year 10 or possibly 11 (it all blurs together at this remove). We were studying the theme of Justice, and I remember we read Nelson Mandela's No Easy Walk to Freedom as well. (There were almost certainly several others, but they haven't stayed with me in the same way). I remember watching the film Biko, being part of a debate on the topic "The Death Penalty: Justice or Revenge?", and writing an impassioned, if naive, essay about economic justice, which I got a B minus for because my English teacher didn't think economic justice was a "real" justice issue (as you don't, if you're a private school teacher married to a doctor and independently wealthy besides. Whoops, that was a bit catty.)

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum
is a novel written in a reportage style that makes it read like a series of newspaper stories, police interviews and other "source" material, all told from a plural first-person (omniscient narrator overhead) perspective. The story is of a housekeeper, Katharina Blum, who meets a man at a party, is attracted to him, and spends the night with him. The next morning, as she is resting, police break into her house looking for her lover, who they claim is wanted for a bank robbery (it later eventuates that in fact he is an army deserter who stole money from his barracks before taking off). They question her relentlessly, arrest her, and continue to harass her.

It's not the police's tactics that attract Boll's greatest ire, though, draconian as they are. Rather, it is the coverage of Katharina's story by the tabloid media, especially a reporter named Totges, who works for the fictitious newspaper Die Zeitung. Totges' invasion of Katharina's life is foul and complete. He harasses and insinuates himself with her friends and family, including her ex-husband and chronically ill mother, who dies the day after Tötges visits her. He brands Katharina as an active accomplice of Götten, rather than merely a girl who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Moreover, feeding a current panic abroad at the time, he claims she is a communist and agitator, based on no evidence whatsoever.

In the end, driven to the edge by Totges' persecution, Katharina invites the journalist to her house, ostensibly for an interview. When he arrives, he sleazily propositions her. Katharina shoots him dead, thus ending both her immediate victimisation and also any chance of restoring a life for herself.

It is a savage critique that Boll offers of moral panics of any kind, tabloid / sensational journalism, and the lack of protection that mere innocence offers. After reading it, I felt contaminated and complicit, thinking of all the times I'd read characterisations of people or events in the media and glibly passed judgements (often harsh ones) based on the presentations I was given. I never read newspaper reportage in quite the same light again, and I think that was a good thing.

Overall, this book, and Mandela's, hit me like a hammer, as a white, privileged teenager who believed that truth would always come out, that innocent people didn't get caught up in unsavoury events, and that you could mostly believe what you read in the newspapers. As a middle aged woman, I'm more world-seasoned, probably less privileged than I was at 15 (hello, disability and motherhood!) but still white, economically secure and Australian, which means I'm much, much better off than most, and I know it. Nonetheless, my years of living have taught me, of my own experience, that this book may be fiction, but only because it didn't quite happen, not because it couldn't have, or didn't in just marginally different guises. I know now what this book first opened my eyes to - truth, and innocence, are not defences to the mutilations that the world has to offer; luck, and timing, are the only factors that matter in determining whether you will be left in peace, or torn apart for the amusement of the masses. There but for the grace of God, indeed.

Edited to note: Although the issues are less extreme than in Boll's fictitious account, a story that appeared in Sunday Life magazine this week, about four wonderful bloggers, underlines in thick black ink the point that the media often sensationalises and distorts events, at the serious expense of real life people. In fact, the problems with the Sunday Life piece illustrate perfectly the problems with deciding on a narrative (usually a negative or controversial one) that will sell papers. It's nothing short of an appeal to the laziness and venality in readers who want a simple story with heroes and villains in heavy-handed caricature; and it speaks ill of journalists when they pander to that, shaping events, words, and tone around a predetermined theme.

I recommend reading Eden's blog on the subject first, and Louisa Claire's too, before you tackle the MSM article, if you do at all.


  1. Sounds like a book I should read... if I can face it!

    It really is all about luck... luck that I was born in Australia, that I was born to anglo parents.... scary to think just one little change of the story could have made my life so very different, and to me, one very good reason why we should have compassion and care for all...

  2. Reading what you've written about this book kind of blew me away. I think I am going to have to read it. I rarely pay attention to the news, and will not watch current affairs shows or read "women's" magazines because I am sick of seeing how they are going for an angle. Why do we feel the need for so much sensationalism? In fact, there are some blogs that I don't read often, if at all, because I worry about how others are going to comment on what really be difficult lives/situations.

    i also remember seeing the Steve Biko film as part of school. I am thinking it may have been a whole school thing, but I am not sure. I know the whole school had to see "Lean on Me" . And it's interesting, I don't actually remember us reading to a theme back in high school. Event university was based on nationality or genre.