Better safe than sullied

The Safety Net

Society crumbles. Our industrial masters live cloistered, surrounded by security men and measures. Culture desecrates itself, destroying what it once cherished. sexual tolerance leads to sexual permissivity leads to sexual perversion, as a wave of pornographic media and attitudes swamps the world around Fritz Tolm, newspaper owner and president of the shadowy Association. We consume our dead and our children; the Church is corrupt; the State is authoritarian and hated. And on top of all this, not only does someone want to kill Tolm, but the hand that deals the blow might even be that of Veronica, his daughter-in-law and father of his grandson Holger.

The actions of the Tolm family in this book, which make up what is essentially a romantic melodrama, are all set against the safety net of security, which threatens to stifle every act they perform. Their lives are founded on, structured around, and shackled by the measures designed to make them safe. But in the glare of publicity at his new appointment as Association president Tolm finds a core of resolution in his family, which is tried and tested by the events of the rest of the novel---Sabine's infidelity, Rolf's intransigence, and young Holger's sudden reappearance (a harbinger of his mother's impending violent action)---but emerges strong and joyful. This resolution carries him through all the technicalities and intricacies of the measures intended for his safety to the books complex, multiply-bluffed climax.

Böll's very prose is made from the vacillations and confusions within the minds of his cast. In addition, the book assumes (generally laudably) that aspects of this dystopia can be hinted at rather than laboured. These two tendencies do combine to make the reading experience a complicated one, yet it's a joy to watch each paragraph take one expertly choreographed, twisted dance-step further towards sympathy with these trapped people. The snares seem so convincing when encountered singly, until one looks back at where the individual has come from and is shocked. He writes lyrically, liltingly, reflexively and poetically, producing something from the same stable as Heller's obsessive Something Happened, but somehow less dense: Böll can both satirize the 1970s with this timeless tale and at the same time tell a beautiful, human story.