The Silent Angel by Henrich Böll

781609Fiction — print. Translated from German by Breon Mitchell. St. Martin’s Press, 1994. Originally published 1992. 182 pgs. Library copy.

Böll finished the manuscript that would later become this novel in August 1950. But publishers at the time were unsatisfied with the novel, concerned that the German public would have no taste of novels dealing with World War II and its aftermath. Published as Der Engel schwieg in Germany, this novel would not be published until 1992 in time for what would have been Böll’s seventy-fifth birthday.

I picked up this novel for the Literature and War Read-a-Long hosted by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat; this book also counts for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzie of Lizzie’s Literary Life. The novel follows Hans Schnitzler as he takes one identity after identity and navigates war-torn Germany after the day of the capitulation. Among the ruins of the city, Hans meets Regina Unger, yet another war widow and a woman who has just lost her baby, as he searches for the widow of a comrade.

Bread, the symbol of both physical and moral survival, is a key part of the novel. Hans and everyone else in Germany are concerned about finding food for physical sustenance. Yet the church that gives Hans bread ends up also becomes a source of moral sustenance in addition to physical sustenance. There is also Regina, a symbol of survival all to herself.

Unfortunately, I think I liked the idea of this novel than I liked the actual book. I just could not loose myself in the pages and I was incredibly aware of each passing minute. The novel did not pack the necessary punch it needs to be truly remarkable for such a short book.


  1. Pingback: The Silent Angel – Heinrich Böll « Lizzy’s Literary Life

  2. I love Böll and that is why I loved this book but it was the last of his novels I read. I understand your and Lizzy’s reservations very well.
    It would have needed some serious reworking to deliver the punch you mention. I hope you will read others of his books. I still think not many did capture a ravaged city and what it means to be constantly hungry and worn out so well.


    • Certainly there have been few that have managed to capture constant hunger and a ravaged city in the context of an “average” German (i.e. not a victim of the Holocaust). I am tempted to read more of his work simply based on the introduction to this novel alone.


  3. Pingback: Heinrich Böll: The Silent Angel – Der Engel schwieg (1951) Literature and War Readalong November 2011 Meets German Literature Month « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  4. I think the phrase “bread of life” acquires a resonance in this book, not only in the religious sense. Hunger and shortage of bread seem to me very powerful metaphors for war in this book.


    • They are, aren’t they? Bread and hunger are powerful metaphors I have encountered in other novels/nonfiction accounts of WWII, particularly in regard to victims of the Holocaust or Jews in hiding.


  5. It’s probably more interesting if you’ve already read a lot of Böll’s work (or if, like me, you encountered several passages from it a matter of weeks ago in a different book!).


    • I did wonder about that. I certainly was intrigued by the introduction of the novel about how Böll’s work was rejected by publishers for not being what was right for the German public at the time.


  6. Fay

    This was my first Böll novel, and I am beginning to understand that I liked it better than several of the other readers did. I have been reading some poetry lately, and the novel reads to me more like poetry than fiction. That was a satisfying aspect of the book, but others did not find the structure successful. I can see that the book does not make a big impact with the storyline, but that did not detract from its beauty, not for me. It is so interesting to read different reactions from other readers. I enjoyed your review, even though my experience of the book was quite different.


    • Hmm, I’m interested in your comparison of the writing style to poetry. Poetry is admittedly not my forte and the book did not come off as “poetic” to me but I can remember there were some beautiful passages. (I read the book earlier this month so my memory is slightly fuzzy.) Anyways, I agree that I love reading different reactions from other readers. It’s one of the reasons why I enjoy participating in read-a-longs.


  7. Pingback: German Literature Month 2011: Author Index « Lizzy’s Literary Life

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