Picks and Pans Review: A Soldier's Legacy

updated 08/12/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/12/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Heinrich Böll

The past, in this vivid antiwar novel, is "an overcrowded, inadequately locked chamber whose bolts must never be touched." The narrator, a young enlisted man named Wenk, served in the German Army on the coast of France during World War II. His story is written like a letter, explaining what happened to a Lieutenant Schelling during the war. The letter is to Schilling's brother. In France there is boredom and corruption—Schelling, who barely conceals his contempt for Hitler, gets into trouble for trying to enforce regulations. Wenk drinks to seek oblivion, but when he explains to Schelling, the officer says, "We were born to suffer, and to know why we suffer. Our suffering is the only thing we will have to show for our lives. Good deeds can be performed only by a few saints, not by us." From France, Wenk and Schelling are sent to the Russian front, plunging into the fighting and the stupid tragedy that ends this powerful book. Böll, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1972, wrote A Soldier's Legacy in 1947, but this is its first U.S. publication. Just as well: In 1947 most Americans would not have wanted to read about sensitive, generous Germans. The slightly formal translation by Leila Vennewitz is exactly right for the superb descriptions of war at its most terrifying. (Knopf, $11.95)

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