Murke's Collected Silences (Doktor Murkes Gesammelten Schweigen) by Heinrich Böll, 1958

views updated

MURKE'S COLLECTED SILENCES (Doktor Murkes gesammelten Schweigen)
by Heinrich Böll, 1958

Because so many of the early stories of Heinrich Böll deal with the events of World War II and its aftermath, it is impossible to separate that period from the central thrust of his writing. The war and the Nazis helped to shape modern Germany, and while most Germans would prefer to forget the past or at least put it to one side, Böll refuses to let go. His message is clear and simple: we are what we have made ourselves to be; and we cannot alter that simple fact.

Not that Böll wants to glorify the war in any way; for him it is a banal and meaningless activity that destroys not only life but also the imagination. That tension between the historical feeling for real events—Böll is careful to place his stories in real time and space—and artistic form provides Böll with the starting point for a coherent literary response to the problem of postwar Germany.

While "Murke's Collected Silences" ("Doktor Murkes gesammelten Schweigen") is not a war story, there are many echoes from the conflict, and Böll makes it clear that its cast and setting, producers in a radio station, have all been influenced by earlier events. Above all he insists that, although the story is realistic, the characters and their activities are basically absurd. For example, one producer admits that he was cured of Nazism by listening three times to one of Hitler's four-hour speeches in order to cut three minutes from it.

The mood is set in the opening paragraphs, which describe the arrival at Broadcasting House of Murke, a producer in the Cultural Department. Instead of going directly to his office, Murke insists on continuing upward in the elevator until he reaches the upper floors. This "existential exercise" is repeated on a daily basis because Murke fears that the elevator might fail; the subsequent anxiety, or "panic-breakfast," provides him with the necessary tension to begin work on the station's cultural output. It is also a metaphor for the meaninglessness and pretentiousness of much of Murke's own efforts.

Having set the scene, Böll introduces the central dilemma. Murke has been entrusted with an unusual and special task—the removal of the word "God" from two talks on "The Nature of Art" given by Dr. Bur-Malottke, a noted academic. Due to a crisis of conscience the great man had insisted that the word be replaced with the formula "that Higher Being Whom we revere," and it falls to Murke to ensure that this is done.

Absurdity is heaped upon absurdity when Bur-Malottke refuses to rerecord the talks and insists that the tapes must simply be recut. To do this he has to return to the studios to record the phrase "that Higher Being Whom we revere" a total of 27 times, not just in the nominative case but also in the vocative and genitive.

As might be expected, this is a richly comic scene, and Böll makes the most of it, investing Murke with an insouciance that is in stark contrast to the discomfort felt by Bur-Malottke. Indeed, as becomes increasingly plain during this scene, Bur-Malottke emerges as a focus for Böll's satirical view of a common postwar German type—the aesthete who is also an opportunist. As Böll makes clear, there is something pathetically ridiculous about the man's conversation at a politically propitious moment in 1945.

Set against Bur-Malottke's views on the nature of art is a telling scene in the canteen, where Murke observes three writers arguing about "art." Each time he hears the word Murke feels that he is being whipped, and to assuage his feelings he takes refuge in the knowledge that earlier he had pinned a tawdry religious print outside the drama production office. This small action is his protest against the sterile modernity of the studios in which design has been subordinated to art.

The real nature of his discontent, however, is revealed toward the end of the story. From the edited tapes Murke collects silences—the places where a speaker pauses for a moment—and keeps them on tape. It is his pleasure to play the tapes in his spare time both as a respite from the demands of his work and as a means of keeping sane. Like the scene with Bur-Malottke, the description of Murke sitting at home with his collected silences is both comic and deeply ironic. In view of the thousands of words he has to produce each day, Murke believes that the only justifiable attitude to take to language is silence.

There is another aspect to the introduction of silence. As in Böll's earlier short fiction, silence is taken to be a motif for meaninglessness. In "That Time in Odessa" the soldiers have nothing left to say to one another and lapse into silence, and in the novella And Where Were You, Adam? (Wo warst du, Adam?) the soldier Feinhals relapses into silence as a means of avoiding the unbearable horror of war.

Unlike the earlier war stories "Murke's Collected Silences" is not a first-person narrative but instead unfolds through the points of view of the individual characters. This allows Murke's actions to be seen against the functional pragmatism of the radio station, a world Böll clearly believes is too closely involved with bureaucracy, and in Böll's eyes bureaucracy, the enemy of art, is clearly identified with fascism.

—Trevor Royle