Pale Anna by Heinrich Böll (1953)
Almost 15 years ago I stumbled upon a book of German short stories in a second-hand shop. One of them, Pale Anna by Heinrich Böll, has always stuck with me. I read it every year.
The story takes place in 1950. The war has been over for five years. The narrator, a nameless ex-soldier of the German army, has only just returned home:
...there was no longer anyone in the city whom I knew. As luck would have it, my parents had left me some money. I rented a room in the city where I lay on the bed, smoking and waiting and knowing not what I was waiting for.
He spends his days in a vegetative state, staring out before him while smoking endless cigarettes; he puts them out on the wall behind him, which is completely stained with black marks.
When his landlady brings him his meals she always hangs around to ask about her son. He supposedly died in the war at a place called Kalinowka. The narrator claims not to know him; nonetheless, as he looks over photos of her son—at a christening, in school, joining the military—he recognises a girl sitting in a tram.
The landlady affectionately refers to her as “Pale Anna”. She explains that Anna was once engaged to her son, but suffered an injury during an air raid which left her scarred and ugly. Now she lives in the room next to the narrator.
The narrator apparently knew her before the war—and had thought of her often—but his exact relation to her is unclear. Perhaps he was a distant admirer? He tries and fails to imagine what she must look like now:
I tried to imagine her face with scars, but I did not succeed, for when I saw her, I only saw a beautiful face that also had scars.
This triggers one of his memories. He remembers going out with another girl, Elizabeth, before the war. When he went away to fight, she would send baked goods to him at the frontline, but they always arrived in crumbs. In one of her letters, she proclaims that the German army will be victorious: “You are going to win and I am so proud that you are there.” But the soldier is not proud to be there and he stops writing back to her.
While on leave he starts going out with another girl. When her father goes away for the weekend, they go to her house to mess around. They are making out on his couch; things are moving fast. Then the narrator’s eyes are drawn to the wall above: a framed photo of Hitler is hanging in the middle of other cut-outs of soldiers from magazines. Without saying anything, the narrator walks out on her.
Recalling all of this as he listens to the muffled footsteps in the room next door, he finally works up the courage to go to Anna’s room. At this point the narrative speeds up and becomes almost breathless. The narrator is certain that she will explain everything to him. He knocks on the door, and when Anna opens it, the story suddenly ends:
I don’t know when, but later I lay my hand over the bell, and even before I had pushed it in and the door had opened slowly, I knew that I had won Anna: her face was completely covered in small, bluish, shimmering scars; a scent of mushrooms, braising in the pan, came out of her room; I pushed the door shut, lay my hand on Anna’s shoulder, and tried to smile.
The abrupt ending functions on multiple levels. On the one hand it suggests trauma: the soldier, wounded by an invisible pain only he can feel, overcomes it through an apparently ordinary gesture that bears no significance for anyone else.
It also has a tinge of sexual frustration about it. The narrator is finally with the girl he admired in his pre-war days. He has “won” her, but both are too scarred—psychologically and physcially—for the moment to carry any erotic spark; then, before anything can happen, it ends.
Similarly, when the narrator recalls making out with his second girlfriend, he notices that she has cut out and hung up photos of soldiers from magazines, the same way a teen girl might collect pictures of her favourite actors or singers. The sexual tension is instantly broken, and the narrator simply walks out.
On a recent re-read it struck me that the narrator might in fact be the landlady’s son. That would unify many of the disparate elements of this story, such as the sheer coincidence of where he ends up living. It also explains his silent attachment to the photos: though he does not recognise the person in the photos as himself, he is drawn to their background details—a tram, a lemonade stand, a clump of poplar trees—precisely because they are details from his life.
The narrator doesn’t want to remember his past life and has completely dissociated from it. In the opening paragraph we learn that he was left money from his parents; it’s never said what happened to them. But if the landlady is his mother, then she knows very well who he is, and is explicitly providing for him and showing him the photos to try and jog his memories.
The narrator becomes disgusted with the war during his time in the army. He stops writing to his first girlfriend when she exclaims that his side will win. He abruptly leaves his next girlfriend because she admires Hitler. Yet whatever his theoretical objections are, he is still personally involved in the war, and cannot forgive himself for it. This is the cause of his psychological bifurcation. It also explains why going to Anna’s room—a literal confrontation with his past—vivifies him.
Yet my interpretation remains little more than a tentative theory. Too many lacunae dot the story liked repressed memories for it to be a full explanation. When would the son and Anna have met each other? What did Anna have to explain? Why didn’t he come home until five years after the war ended?
None of this is completely satisfying. The sheer haziness of this story is precisely what draws me back to it. At its beginning, the narrator is lying around in a muddled doze; he is waiting for something; not even he knows what for, or why. Then he learns about Anna and gets the idea to go to his room, at which point he becomes very excited and certain that he will get answers.
Answers to what? There are questions here that nobody—neither narrator nor reader—seems to be aware of. Every time I read this story I believe even more in the narrator’s trauma; Böll’s brilliance is that he only ever suggests it. It always remains beneath the surface of this story. Every attempt I make to draw it out by connecting the dots is a failure—just like the soldier, doomed to piece together false meanings from the unhappy pieces of his shattered life.
Original quote in German: »...ich fand niemanden mehr in der Stadt, den ich kannte. Zum Glück hatten meine Eltenr mir Geld hinterlassen. Ich mietetete ein Zimmer in der Stadt, dort lag ich auf dem Bett, rauchte und wartete und wusste nicht, worauf ich wartete.« All translations are my own.
»Ich versuchte, mir ihr Gesicht mit Narben vorzustellen, aber es gelang mir nicht, und immer, wenn ich es sah, war es ein schönes Gesicht auch mit Narben.«
»‘Ihr werdet schon siegen, und ich bin so stolz, dass du dabei bist.’ Ich aber war gar nicht stolz, daß ich dabei war…«
»Ich weiß nicht wann, aber später legte ich meine Hand auf die Klinke, und noch bevor ich die Klinke herunterdrückte und die Tür langsam aufschob, wusste ich, dass ich Anna gewonnen hatte: Ihr Gesicht war ganz mit bläulich schimmernden kleinen Narben bedeckt, ein Geruch von Pilzen, die in der Pfanne schmorten, kam aus ihrem Zimmer, und ich schob die Tür ganz auf, legte meine Hand auf Annas Schulter und versuchte zu lächeln.«