David's Reviews > The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll
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's review
Apr 26, 10

really liked it
Read in August, 1974 — I own a copy , read count: 3

Over the past year, I have developed a disturbing addiction to one of America's most popular TV shows. Not American Idol. No, it's NCIS . Nothing pleases me more than when Channel 42 runs one of their sporadic Saturday NCIS marathons, because I've come late to a series that's about to finish its seventh season, so there's a heap of old episodes I have yet to see.

There are aspects of this new enthusiasm that I prefer not to analyze too closely, because every addiction has its dark side. With NCIS, what's clearly problematic is my emotional response as the team members routinely violate the privacy of each and every suspect the trail throws up. "Violate" doesn't even begin to describe it - words like "rape" or "demolish" might be closer. Objectively viewed, it's horrifying - and my blood chills at the thought that anyone would invade my life to that extent. But when I watch each week's episode, not only am I not appalled at the team's excesses, I actually cheer them on . I think the show accomplishes this through a combination of the latest in gee-whiz technology and forensic science (like the CSI shows), by manipulating the pace of the narrative to avoid giving the viewer time to dwell on potential issues of individual privacy, and by exploiting the considerable goodwill that regular viewers are likely to feel towards the goodlooking, witty, charming, smart and essentially decent characters. After all, often as not they are trying to track down that terrorist cell in downtown Alexandria. So when Agent Gibbs, the quintessential good guy, has the sleazebucket strip club owner in the interrogation room, brandishing the threat of Gitmo in lieu of Mirandizing the suspect, well ... we know he has everyone's best interests at heart.

Unless you are a sleazebucket. But here's the thing. Each of us has some aspect of our lives, past or present, in which we are essentially sleazebuckets. And maybe, just maybe, we have the right (even during a "war on terror"; no, especially during a war on terror) not to have these parts of our lives held up to public scrutiny.

Which is exactly the question raised by Boll in this relatively short, but powerful book. I was living in Germany when it was first published, and it was one of the first complete books I was able to complete in German. When it was filmed, a few years later, I had a summer job in Berlin, and I remember that there was much renewed public debate about the issues raised.

It bothers me that public debate on the topic in the U.S. has been muted to non-existent. Given the extraordinary degree to which snooping is now possible, scenarios for abuse are not hard to think up.

I revisited this book recently; it still retains its power.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by D. (new)

D. Pow I Like Heinrich Boll. I am not ashamed of this. I like NCIS too, of this I'm ashamed.

message 2: by Buck (new)

Buck By the sound of it, The Lives of Others would be right up your alley, but I'm guessing you've already seen it.

David Yes indeed. I thought it was great - brought back memories of the many delightful hours I spent at the Friedrichstrasse border crossing in Berlin - they had a whole dossier which detailed each and every time I passed through. Full employment for the bloody-minded.

David Brian:

Ich habe zweimal in Deutschland gewohnt. Das erste Mal, verpasste ich das Schuljahr 1973-74 in einer katholischen Hochschule in NRW, in der Naehe von Moenchen-Gladbach. Waehrend meiner Zeit an der Uni, habe ich zweimal in Sommerferien in Berlin gearbeitet, wo ich auch zwei Semester (1977-78) an der Technischen Uni studierte.

I think Heinrich Böll is middle of the road as far as difficulty of reading his work in German is concerned. One of his short story collections was on the syllabus for our Leaving Certificate exam (roughly the Irish equivalent of the U.S. AP tests), so he's definitely accessible.

The press, rather than the police, were the major agents in the violation of privacy in Katharina Blum; Böll was reacting to the excesses of Springer-controlled media, papers like the Bildzeitung.

NCIS is nowhere near as shrill as "24", but it does have a definite point of view. There is a real government NCIS agency, whose exact purview I'm not entirely clear about. The TV show appears to suggest that the wrongdoing has to involve navy personnel (either as victims or perpetrators) to fall under NCIS jurisdiction. But sometimes it's just the threat of wrongdoing, and they have ongoing turf battles with other agencies. It's the whole "possibility of a threat" aspect which is distressingly elastic, and can be invoked to cover a multitude of sins..

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