Long before the hit television show The Office, before the comic strip Dilbert, there was Büroroman ("Office Novel") a brilliant satire by Walter E. Richartz which was published in 1976. Anyone who has ever worked in an office will appreciate this gem. The narrator of Büroroman parks himself in the accounting department of the Frankfurt company DRAMAG and records the daily routine and rituals of the long-time employees Herr Kuhlwein and Frau Klatt. They spend their days in a hermetcailly sealed room adding up columns of numbers, the monotony interrupted only by the morning breakfast break and the lunch hour - and, once a year, the beloved Urlaub (vacation).
Each segment of their daily routine is recorded and analyzed with precision. Richartz even conducts a socio-linguistc exegisis on the expression "Mahlzeit" - uttered millions of times at lunchtime in offices throughout Germany. The pronunciation, emphasis, and exact time "Mahlzeit"is spoken reveals critical information about the age, tenure, and socio-economic standing of the speaker.
The office workers in Büroroman spend their mornings waiting for the lunch hour. And the daily monotony is interrupted only during Urlaub - the summer holiday. Richartz describes how the employees return from their summer breaks bronzed and energized, but their enthusiasm fades quickly along their tan. Soon the oppressive grind gains the upper hand, and one can only dream of next year's Urlaub in the impossibly distant future.
Occasionally the forces of nature intrude, even in the sealed DRAMAG high-rise office building. In one dramatic scene the Turkish Gastarbeiter who are cleaning the outside windows kick their way through the window of Herr Kulhwein's office after a storm nearly blows them from the scaffolding. But such interludes are rare. The window is quickly replaced, order is restored, and the outside world is shut out.
Herr Kuhlwein and Frau Klatt genuinely believe they are indispensible for DRAMAG, that their work is essential. They are experts at looking busy: the files pile up on the desk, the phone is ringing. But in reality they have their eye on the clock:
Es ist 15:10 . Es ist 15:10 Es ist 15:11 - nein, eine Täuschung. Es bleibt 15:10. Weiter geht es nicht. Es ist schon ein paar Mal nur schleppend weiter gegangen - aber jetzt ist es ganz aus. Die Zeit steht. Ist stecken geblieben. Aus, fertig, nichts mehr zu machen. Kommen Sie und sehen Sie selbst: dies ist der Ort, wo die Zeit stillsteht, wo sie die Zeit endgültig totgeschlagen haben!
("It's 3:10PM. It's 3:10. It's 3:11 = no, that's not true. It's still 3:10. It's not moving ahead. It's happened before that it moved ahead very slowly - but now it's over. Time is standing still. We're stuck and there's nothing we can do. Come over and see for yourself: this is the place where time stands still, where they finally killed time!")
Killing time is their specialty. But, in the end, time - the boredom and monotony - kills Herr Kuhlwein at this desk. As his life flashes before his eyes he asks himself: Why did I stay here?
Herr Kuhlwein and Frau Klett may have throught they were fooling their bosses at DRAMAG with their busywork and time-killing tactics. But, as the reader learns in the Afterword, it was DRAMAG that was deceiving its employees: the work in the accounting department was actually performed by computers; Kuhlwein's output was tossed into the shredder. It was simply too costly to fire or transfer the older employees like Kuhlwein, whose skills had atrophied long ago.
Büroroman was written more than 35 years ago, but if anything the situation today is far worse for the Herr Kuhlweins and Frau Kletts of today. At least they had each other to torment and were not sitting in isolated cubicles. And with e-mail and Smartphones the office now takes over every waking minute of our lives - and often even our dreams.
On February 3, 1980, Walter E. Richartz, whose real name was Walter Erich Freiherr Karg von Bebenburg, walked into a forest near Klingenberg am Main and took his own life. His body was discovered a month later.