HEINRICH BOLL'S first novel, ``The Silent Angel,'' completed in 1951, was never published in his lifetime. The reasons for this, as outlined in translator Breon Mitchell's introduction, are not quite as dramatic as might have been expected in the case of a writer noted for taking principled stands against authority.
Initially, publishers rejected the struggling young writer's portrait of postwar Germany as too depressing.
Later, by the time that Boll (1917-1985) had emerged as one of the most famous and honored German writers of his generation, eventually winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1972, he had already reworked some of the themes and passages from this early, unpublished novel into subsequent books, notably ``And Never Said a Word'' (1953) and ``The Clown'' (1963).
``The Silent Angel,'' nonetheless, is a novel worthy of being read in its own right, and its publication is a significant addition to the author's body of work. A vividly realistic, and at the same time strongly symbolic, account of a soldier's return to his bombed-out native city, it is a stark portrayal of material hardship that slowly reveals itself to be a story about the never-ending war between good and evil.
Hans Schnitzler, a soldier of uncertain status, returns to a cathedral city clearly modeled on Cologne. A deserter who escaped from military prison, he needs food, clothing, and papers to provide him with a new identity. He is also looking for the widow of a comrade who made possible his escape. The dead man's jacket contains his last will and testament, leaving everything to her. The woman, Elisabeth Gompertz, is gravely ill when he finds her, but still intent on using what resources she has to help the city's needy.
In the ruined city, Hans meets a second angelic woman, Regina Unger, also a war widow, who has just lost her baby.
Instinctively, without deliberate intention but with a kind of natural innocence, they find themselves falling in love, trying to contemplate a life together while scarcely able to find the means of sustaining life.
Living in comparative luxury amid so much poverty and deprivation is a man named Fischer, the story's villain, who embodies the forces of complicity, avarice, and corruption. Fischer edits a Roman Catholic scholarly journal, ironically (considering who edits it) called The Lamb of God.
The unfolding plot reveals the unforeseen ways these characters' lives and destinies intersect. Fischer, married into the same wealthy family as the widow Gompertz, is determined to prevent the family fortune from falling into her charitable hands. The lengths to which he is prepared to go contrast sharply with the many acts of decency and selflessness performed by the other characters.
Beyond the particulars of plot, the novel also operates on a symbolic plane. Humble daily events - a man eating a piece of bread, a woman scrubbing a floor only to uncover hideous stains beneath the sheltering coat of dust - are fraught with power and significance. (Boll was to use the latter scene again in ``And Never Said a Word.'')
And framing the story, the image of the silent angel, who appears at the beginning and end of the novel, seems to epitomize the fearful vulnerability of higher values against an onslaught of brutality.
The reader is left to ponder whether the angel's silence allows evil to prosper or whether such silent suffering of evil is testimony of the angel's sanctity.