09 February 2010

Book Review: What's to Become of the Boy by Heinrich Böll


What’s to Become of the Boy or: Something to Do with Books
Heinrich Böll


A few years ago I read The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll and really enjoyed it. Both the story and the style of writing really appealed to me. I followed that up sometime later with his book The Clown which I liked but not as much as Katharina. So when I was combing through a second hand bookstore in Pennsylvania right after Thanksgiving and came across this short memoir of Böll’s childhood I snapped it up immediately.

Böll was the first German to win the Nobel Prize for literature since Thomas Mann won it in 1929. His childhood in a liberal Catholic, pacifist family in pre-WWII Cologne provides the backdrop for this memoir. The book follows Böll as he and his family deal with the ever-more invasiveness of the Nazi Party in their daily lives. It also shows the ways in which the angst and joys of a bookish adolescent still manage to exert themselves in spite of the family’s near poverty and the fascist trajectory of Germany at the time. He is a boy whose future is not only clouded by the oncoming war but also by his vague notions of wanting to do “something with books”. But he does have his priorities straight. In an atmosphere where books were burned not just for political reason but also for fuel, he regularly used his scarce spending money toward the purchase of books.

Overall Böll’s memoir was only mildly interesting. Too many of the many German cultural references in the book were unknown to me which made it difficult to really get into the groove of the story. If you are going to read Böll, and I recommend you do, try The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum.

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