The Library: Irish Journal, by Heinrich Böll

Review: Marcel Krueger

A lanky man in a raincoat and hat walks along the deck of the steamer bound for Dun Laoghaire. Irish families, travelling as cheaply as possible, have bedded down for the night, their possessions piled around them like tiny fortresses. The man overhears hushed conversations; between families, laundresses on their way home from London, priests. Sometimes he stops and leans against the railings, pretending to smoke but instead listening to the Irish complain about God and their fate. He is going to put them in a book.

Heinrich Böll (1917-1985) was always a political writer. A member of the famous German writers’ collective Gruppe 47, he started publishing novels, short stories and essays in 1949. Böll received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1972. His ideals were comparable to those of George Orwell: fiercely contesting totalitarianism, narrow-mindedness and prejudice. However, the further away from Germany he travelled, the more Böll the political novelist became Böll the explorer. And it was in this latter incarnation that he composed one of the classic works of German travel writing: his Irish Journal.

Böll and his family visited Ireland often, spending most of their summer holidays in the 1950s on Achill Island, Mayo. Appearing first as serial in Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, the collection was published in 1957 as Irisches Tagebuch, or ‘Irish Journal’. The journal is a series of sketches about life in Ireland, at that time a country of extreme poverty, strict Catholicism and torrential rainfall. As well as eavesdropping on conversations aboard the ferry from Holyhead, Böll strikes up conversations in pubs and, being German, marvels at how things are run without the slightest nod towards efficiency and yet still get done.

His portrait of Ireland is partly fictionalized, an idealistic rural alternative to life in industrialized Wirtschaftswunder West Germany. Böll was captivated by what he saw as a friendly, classless society living at a more leisurely pace. The contents of this short book, with an epilogue written 13 years after his first visit, is a reflection on the essence of the place that has, for some, become evergreen – in every the sense of the word. His words still reverberate with the many Germans who visit Ireland today:

“… here on this island, then, live the only people in Europe that never set out to conquer, although they were conquered several times, by Danes, Normans, Englishmen – all they sent out was priests, monks, missionaries who, by way of this strange detour via Ireland, brought the spirit of Thebaic asceticism to Europe.”

Maybe it is this idea of an innocent haven that has always drawn the visitors here. After all, Ireland was neutral during the Second World War; for the first German visitors after the war, the difference in landscape and mentality must have been striking. And maybe this fascination was somehow transported to Germany’s subconscious, and is what makes Ireland one of the favourite destinations for Germans even today.

Böll certainly plays with this perception of an innocent place steeped in mythology, and it seems to prevent him from engaging fully and critically with the Irish and their history. Some of his characters are almost stereotypically flat: the priest, the doctor’s wife, the drinker. Böll is fascinated by the poverty he sees, but to him that poverty is honourable, resulting as it does from overcrowding and a lack of resources, rather than from war and megalomania. Not once does he question the origin of this poverty, or dare to criticise the priests – he was a good Catholic himself. In his epilogue Böll even comments with horror on the arrival of the pill in Ireland. While admitting that it might liberate women and save the country from overpopulation, he writes “… this absolutely paralyzes me: the prospect that fewer children might be born in Ireland fills me with dismay”.

But this book, now 50 years old and smoothly translated by longstanding Böll translator Leila Vennewitz, was never meant to be a strict non-fiction travel report from an unbiased observer. Rather, it is a novelist’s way of both recording and making up his favourite country. Böll himself admits as much in his first sentence: ‘This Ireland exists: but whoever goes there and fails to find it has no claim on the author.” We have been warned.

This review originally appeared in our “zero edition” for the crowdfunding campaign.
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