I picked up a copy of Heinrich Böll's very first novel Der Engel schwieg (English version: The Silent Angel) after reading W.G.Sebald's essay On the Natural History of Destruction about the literary impact - or lack thereof - of the aerial bombing of Germany in World War II. Sebald mentions Der Engel schwieg as one of the few books of the time that dealt with the death and destruction of the bombing. But the book was too bleak and realistic for the time and wasn't published (Böll wrote the novel in 1950, but it wasn't published until 1992 - seven years after his death).
After reading Der Engel schwieg I feel that Sebald was only half-right about the novel. Yes, Böll was writing about a taboo subject, but there were certainly commercial, not just sociological, reasons for why the manuscript was rejected. Böll was just gaining his sea legs as a writer; some of the plot lines, characters, and themes were handled to much better effect in Und sagte kein einziges Wort (1953) and subsequent novels. On the other hand, the novel is a must-read for Böll fans, for Der Engel schwieg gives us the "raw Böll"; everything we love about Böll is here in his first novel: good vs evil, light vs dark, the corruption of the Church hierarchy, the courage and generosity of women, the struggle to find meaning through God. And perhaps no other novel describes more powerfully the existential struggle for survival in those first days following the "Zero Hour" ( "die Stunde Null").
Der Engel schwieg begins with the central figure, Hans Schnitzler, an AWOL soldier moving Zombie-like through the rubble of his ruined city (unnamed but recognizable as Böll's Cologne) where in the dark he stumbles across a damaged statue of a smiling angel. Schnitzler is on a mission to find the widow of a wealthy soldier, who, inexplicably, gives his life for Schnitzler's - a total stranger to him. But there is little joy in having been given the gift of life; on the contrary, Schnitzler is bitter that he was cheated out of death:
“Ich sollte leben, ich wollte sogar leben – - und er wollte mir das Leben schenken, aber ich begreife jetzt, daß man jemand das Leben schenken kann, indem man ihm den Tod stiehlt.”
("I was to have lived, I even wanted to live ... and he wanted to give me life, but I realize now that you can give someone life by stealing his death.")
Schnitzler eventually does find a reason to live, in a love relationship with Regina, a woman who has lost everything in the war, including her infant son. The couple consummate their "marriage" after drinking altar wine.
If Hans Schnitlzler and Regina represent the light in Der Engel schwieg, Dr. Fischer embodies the darkness. Fischer publishes a newsletter for the Catholic Church and is a pal of the Bishop as well as a Nazi party member. Fischer collects Madonnas - not for their religious meaning but rather for their monetary value. Dr. FIscher is relentless in his quest for money, which, for Böll is blood money: there is the smell of blood as Fischer opens his safe, he pays a handsome sum to Regina for donating blood to his daughter. In the end, blood money wins out, and the reader is left with an image of the stone angel sinking into the mud, its smile now a sorrowful grimace. This is not the happy ending the publishers were hoping for that might distract readers from the horrors of war and misery of a ruined country before the Economic Miracle.
Böll was not interested in happy endings. In his 1952 essay Bekenntnis zur Trümmerliteratur ("Commitment to the Literature of Rubble") Böll emphasized his commitment to writing the truth of what he witnessed:
Die Bezeichnungen als solche sind berechtigt: es war Krieg gewesen, sechs Jahre lang, wir kehrten heim aus diesem Krieg, wir fanden Trümmer und schrieben darüber. Merkwürdig, fast verdächtig war nur der vorwurfsvolle, fast gekränkte Ton, mit dem man sich dieser Bezeichnung bediente: man schien uns zwar nicht verantwortlich zu machen dafür, daß Krieg gewesen, daß alles in Trümmern lag, nur nahm man uns offenbar übel, daß wir es gesehen hatten und sahen, aber wir hatten keine Binde vor den Augen und sahen es: ein gutes Auge gehört zum Handwerkszeug des Schriftstellers.
(The characterizations as such are justified: there was a war, six years long, and we came home from the war and found rubble wrote about it. What's strange is the accusatory tone people used in their characterizations of us. Not that they held us responsible for the war, or that everything lay in rubble, but they took offense that we had witnessed it, but we weren't blindfolded and we did see it: a good eye is an important tool for a writer.)