‘Murke’s Collected Silences’ by Heinrich Böll, translated by the author

I loved this story when I first read it, well before the digital age would have rendered obsolete the physical job of cutting and splicing tapes. I love it now for all kinds of different reasons. 

Murke is employed by the national radio. He is too bright for his job. One morning, he is directed to delete the word God from a recorded talk by someone who is eager to re-write his public profile, so history must be adapted accordingly. The person is too important to disobey. I love that this story includes so much while so very little actually happens. There is the smoking of cigarettes, the daily addiction to anxiety and fear in the old lift at the Broadcasting House, a laconic revulsion against good taste, against Art and Culture and against the inevitable kow-towing to self-important people. I love that everything is there in the story—even dogs. Small everyday battles are being fought. Subversive acts are winning in tiny ways that can make a person feel hope about one thing at a time. And while all this happens, Murke is collecting silences in the form of little pieces of cut-up audio tape removed from the recording. No one wants to hear silence on the radio. Murke’s collection is just another small part of the meaningless and absurd activities of his life. 

This story is not about the glorious hopeful silence of summer. This is silence stored in a biscuit tin. Kept for another day.

“What kind of left-overs?” asked Humkoke.
“Silences,” said Murke, “I collect silences.”
Hukoke raised his eyebrows, and Murke went on: “When I have to cut tapes, in the places where the speakers sometimes pause for a moment – or sigh, or take a breath, or there is absolute silence – I don’t throw that away, I collect it. Incidentally, there wasn’t a single second of silence in Bur-Malottke’s tapes.”
Humkoke laughed: “Of course not, he would never be silent. And what do you do with the scrap?”
“I splice it together and play back the tape when I’m at home in the evening. There’s not much yet, I only have three minutes so far – but then people aren’t silent very often.”
“You know, don’t you, that it’s against regulations to take home sections of tape?”
“Even silences?” asked Murke.

First published in Great Britain 1967 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, collected in various editions including Absent Without Leave, Marion Boyers, 1983. Picked by Erica Van Horn. Erica is an American writer and artist. She has been living in Tipperary, Ireland for the last 22 years, a deeply rural setting from where her writings evolve in a daily journal. Recent publications include TOO RAUCOUS FOR A CHORUS, 2017 (Coracle), EM & ME, 2017 (Coracle) and LIVING LOCALLY (Uniformbooks). Her papers are held at the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

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