Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Book: Ansichten eines clownes (The Clown)

To add a bit of variosity, I’ll talk about one book. Heinrich Boll’s “The clown”, or in more literal translations, “Thoughts of one clown”.

It is a damn good book. Formally, a story is placed in no more than couple of hours during which the main character, a heavily-drinking clown is trying to set some of his financial problems straight. A lot of flashbacks (pardon – in movies and comics it is flashback, in literature it is retrospective) make the span of the book years, around thirty years to be exact.

This form of a novel is not new: collage retrospectives crossing with each other and with present time, as we go onward through the book, pieces of mosaic that is main character’s life are fitting together. But it’s great nonetheless.

Story is happening in post-war Germany, in seventies. Bol uses opportunity to talk a lot about various forms of behaviour in this specific situation; For instance, people who have ability to fit into any political environment: those who are well during Hitler’s government and lend on their feet as soon as situation changes. Especially interesting is the case of a character that builds his career and public reputation on guilt: having need to apologize for being a Nazi supporter (while he was still a boy) he bears a reputation of exceptionally conscious and moral person. Society eager to wash away the recent history, accepts him and rises him on pedestal.

Indeed, this is mostly a book about moral. And what better opportunity is to talk about moral than post-war Germany, where the burden of guilt is so heavy?

Other great concern of Bol is christianity. Main character considers his wife kidnapped by a club of pretentious, moralizing extreme catholics. She merely run away from her, for a few years he managed to snitch her from the claws of extreme religion mixed with quasi-intelectualism, but deep inside, troubled by his liberal life choices, she was deemed to be returned to her previous conviction. Thus main character is deeply in denial. And deeply in love, for that matter.

Alongside, Bol tells us a lot of facts that are unknown to us who have been looking at WWII from the different standpoint, giving a lot of information that I never had where to learn from. For instance, I really didn’t know that Nazis were rarely sent to the front. Nah, front was reserved for those not involved in politics the least. Now that I think of it, it sounds logical, but I really didn’t know this. How different this picture is from that of a Nazi soldier drone from “Wolfenstein”, or from average WWII film. Not having compassion for enemy soldiers is a common place of understanding the war, and this is probably the most extreme in case of WWII. Because the guilt of Germans didn’t leave any doubt. Nowadays, with world politics as it is, it is not safe to kill Vietnamese, Russians, Chinese, Cubans, it will easily get a smell of racism or nationalism, and some history events have shown not to be so clear as it seemed. But with Germans, it’s safe, you can set your film back into WWII and noone will ever blame you for killing thousands of German soldiers. Well, that picture is not so acceptable when you think that all those soldiers were poor ordinary people who never wanted to be there in the first place, probably even opponents of Nazism forced to the front – while real ideologists were back on safe. Hard critique of this can be found in “Slaughterhouse V” by Kurt Vonnegut, who lived through Dresden bombing as a war prisoner.

Nobel Prize winner for year 1972, Bol still cared about making characters we can easily identify with, then concentrating on documenting history on grandiose scale. No symbol-characters, Ana-Kareninas and Rascolnikovs, more assemblies of all possible human doubts than real characters, that don’t live their own life so much as serve for a writer to present his philosophical theories on them. Being a good writer is greater achievement than being a Nobel Prize winner, and to me Bol is a very good writer now, even though my first acquaintance with him might’ve been through his Nobel-prize fame. And while we’re talking about good writer, you know – that retrospective collage scheme is really good – It gives you a chance to really get to know characters, to understand them even though they’re complex in their own way – and when, near the end of the book main character says “The only people who never had prejudice for me as a kid of rich parents were...” and names those people, you really have to say: “Hey, he’s right!” You feel like you were there all the time.

And, at the end of the book, you really have to be a bit sad, looking at him, making what can be the stupidest or the best decision of his life.


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