‘Action Will Be Taken’ by Heinrich Boll

Boll, Heinrich 1954

Action Will Be Taken by Heinrich Boll, 1954

The magic trick:

Switching targets of satire from the narrator to the setting back to the narrator

The story starts out with what appears to be the mocking of our narrator. “By nature I am inclined more to pensiveness and inactivity than to work,” he tells us. We’re going to read the rest of the text now with the idea that the narrator is a little bit lazy and ridiculous. But as the story goes on, it becomes clear that the narrator is the least ridiculous part of this world. The factory, where the narrator works, is a bureaucratic madhouse full of absurdities and punchlines worthy of any modern workplace satire.

But then you consider the author’s life and point of view. Is this really comedy? Boll grew up in Nazi Germany. The narrator isn’t forgiven simply because his surroundings are even more ridiculous in comparison. He was inactive, then went along with the factory system to stay alive, and then closes the story as a professional mourner. It’s not hard to connect that timeline to the tragically complicated life of a German citizen who survived World War II and is trying to make sense of the aftermath. And that’s quite a trick on Boll’s part.

The selection:

Within a week I increased the number of telephones on my desk to eleven, within two weeks to thirteen, and every morning on the streetcar I enjoyed thinking up new imperatives, or chasing the words take action through various tenses and modulations: for two whole days I kept saying the same sentence over and over again because I thought it sounded so marvelous: “Action ought to have been taken;” for another two days it was: “Such action ought not to have been taken.”

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