Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Bread of Those Early Years

Usually when I'm in our town library, I have my five-year-old daughter in tow, tugging at my arm. At times, I will simply reach up onto a shelf, randomly grab a book for myself and then hope for the best. The last time I performed this maneuver, I struck gold with Heinrich Boll's The Bread of Those Early Years.

This is the story of a Monday in the life of Walter Fendrich, a 23 year-old washing machine repairman in 1950's Germany with all it's post-war baggage and delicacies. Fendrich disdains his job. "I hate it the way a boxer hates boxing."

Yet he is endlessly haunted by his days of wartime hunger and it is an obsession with bread that anchors these remembrances. There is something in the fundamental and Eucharistic implications of bread. His longing for bread during those years had transformed him, at least in his own mind, into something animalistic and primal.

The stoic and deliberate pace of Walter's life is broken up when his father asks him to meet the daughter of a friend arriving at the train station. From there, he is to bring this young lady to a rooming house where she will begin her life as a schoolteacher in the city.

When Walter finally meets this young woman, Hedwig, he is unglued. Something overtakes him that is maddening. He describes himself at one point of being jealous of the pavement that she walks upon. Walter's hunger has now returned. Love, like bread seems a fundamental, sustaining element of life. Yet what Walter feels for Hedwig seems to consume him with an almost hostile possession rather than a benevolent, blissful, uplifting affection.

The dialogue in this book is German in its directness and economy. It provides a wonderful complement to the infinite storms of emotion that these characters, most of all Walter, maintain.

Walter is hungering physically and emotionally. He hungers for some meaning to his life beyond the washing machines he repairs and the banality of his environment. Is his hunger for Hedwig real or just a temporary transference of a hunger that can never be sated?

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