A SOLDIER'S LEGACY by Heinrich Boll

A SOLDIER'S LEGACY

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Nobel-winner Boll published his first novel in 1949 (The Train Was on Time)--but this ""rediscovered"" novella, a bitterly sardonic exercise in postwar disillusion and anti-militaristic rage, dates from 1947. The narrator is a young German ex-soldier named Wenk; he is addressing the younger brother of First Lieutenant Schelling, an officer who was ""reported missing"" back in 1943, in the midst of German/Russian battles on the Eastern Front. But Wenk knows the true story of Schelling's death--a story that begins at a tiny German base in the Normandy dunes in the summer of '43. Wenk, a new addition to Schelling's coastal infantry division, is surprised to find that Lieut. Schelling is a sensitive man, moving ""with complete confidence on the narrow borderline of simultaneous authority and humility."" Furthermore, Schelling seems to share Wenk's hatred of the ""damnable"" Nazi regime, his despair over the war's bestiality, ""that sluggish tide of monotony and horror."" And, unlike other officers, Schelling truly cares about the shaky, hungry men he commands--their moral decay as well as their physical well-being. (""We stick these good men into uniform and destroy what the Prussians like to call gutlessness: a sense of human dignity and the glorious freedom of a civilian."") So Wenk is impressed, comforted, even awed by Schelling--with ambivalent feelings when it turns out that both men have been wooing the same local French girl. (""That gentle pair simply belonged together. . . I can't say I felt jealous. I was breathing heavily, suffused with the pain of being totally excluded."") But then the division is sent east to meet the invading Russians--as Schelling proves that anti-militarism and combat gallantry can coexist. And his continued concern for the battle-numbed, sleepy soldiers brings him into ugly, fatal conflict with young Capt. Schnecker--who represents all the foulest aspects of German/Nazi militarism: cruelty, brutality, swinishness, debauchery. (Wenk catches a 1947 glimpse of Schnecker, an ""incipiently bull-necked fledgling Doctor of Laws,"" a sad prototype for postwar Germany.) After 40 years of post-WW II European fiction, the themes here can hardly seem fresh--especially in the young Boll's rather heavyhanded, surpriseless treatment. But, in the sharp sketches of wartime desolation and in the blending of irony with full-hearted lyricism, there are more than a few glimpses of Boll's distinctive, influential talent.

Pub Date: May 8th, 1985
Publisher: Knopf