Women in a River Landscape

Heinrich Boll completed Women in a River Landscape shortly before his death in 1985, with an English translation by David McClintock appearing in 1988. Whether he knew it would be his final novel or not, there is a directness about it, largely created by the absence of a mediating narrator, which suggests the urgency of its message. Boll describes it as ‘a novel in dialogues and soliloquies’ and, on the page, it appears very like a drama script, though there is little in the way of action, and the dialogue is not naturalistic. Its focus, as with so much of Boll’s work, is the corruption of post-war Germany, and the continuing power and influence of individuals and institutions that have escaped justice or, at the very least, shame.

These hidden pasts are evident throughout the novel. In the opening conversation between Wuber and his wife Erika, she refers back to the days when he and his circle of friends were coming into power:

“I saw you drive out to dump the Klossow documents in the lake.”

This disposal takes pace at the behest of Chundt, a powerbroker who continues to appoint ministers (“Chundt always frightened me with his boundless ambition to control heaven and earth”), and also to remove them when they are no longer of any use:

“Plukanski couldn’t be supported any longer: an old wartime story has just emerged.”

These secrets are used within the ‘gang’ to ensure obedience; Chundt threatens Blaukramer:

“And you’d better keep quiet: I now have a few photos in my dossier… The photos show you ordering the men to fire on the poor swine who were trying to escape from a concentration camp…””

Erika has kept these secrets, but other wives have found this harder. Blaukramer’s wife, Elisabeth’s, refusal to keep quiet has led to her incarceration in an institution, “where all the discarded wives live – in a high-class prison”:

“They go there to have their – what’s the expression? – to have their memories corrected.”

Plottinger’s wife, on the other hand, drowned herself in the Rhine – a river that is used throughout as a symbol of all that is hidden away:

“To think of all the different objects that jostle one another down there in the green slime: SS skull and crossbones, and swords with black, white and red tassels…”

The river landscape is also a reminder of the past: the owner of a dilapidated building on the bank refuses to sell as his father was killed in a concentration camp, leaving it instead as a “monument to shame”.

The story itself has a few key points: Erika overhearing the “voice that used to make us all tremble” in her home when the ‘gang’ are meeting, the voice, we assume, of some Nazi with a new identity, the same voice Elisabeth claimed to have heard before being put away. This prompts her to refuse to go to a public event where she is expected with her husband, and also causes some soul-searching on his part. Later it will be Erika who finds that Elisabeth has hanged herself; Plukanski, too, dies from the shock of his dismissal (and a girl dies from an attempted abortion – Chundt is the father – as if to demonstrate how cheap life is to the group). Characters talk of escape – to Cuba, to Chile – particularly the younger generation. Both Church and culture are seen as corrupt – the Church as useful “window-dressing”.  Someone is dismantling the grand pianos of bankers, following the example of Karl, who kept only the castors which he is now using to make a buggy for his son. It is a novel, then, in which symbolism runs deep, and the country is fixed with an accusatory eye. Politicians are blamed (“politics is a dirty business”) but Boll is well aware of the power behind the politicians:

“We politicians collaborate in producing all the shit, and then clearing it all away, so that they can do the dusting without getting any dirt on themselves.”

The fixation with the Church and aristocracy may seem a little dated at times, but we might just as easily recognise the behaviour of contemporary politicians and powerbrokers – Plukanski, for example, has been used because “there wasn’t the slightest trace of spiritual dimension in his make-up.”

Women in a River Landscape is an appropriately elegiac novel, as ageing characters discuss their pasts, their hunger and desperation, and the compromises they have made. Despite Boll’s anger and condemnation, his approach is nuanced, his characters both created by and reacting to circumstances. It is not his easiest, or best, novel, but it has the hypnotic power of a confession.

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2 Responses to “Women in a River Landscape”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    It certainly sounds dark, Grant, but the time it was published was still relatively close to the war and its aftermath.

  2. German Literature Month XI Author Index – Lizzy's Literary Life Says:

    […] of The Reich 1 Bogdan The Peacock 1 Böll The Train Was OnTime 1 2 Women in A River Landscape 1 Boschwitz The Passenger 1 2 3 Bronsky Barbara stirbt nicht 1 Dürrenmatt From The Papers of A […]

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