‘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.

‘Christmas Not Just Once a Year’, by Heinrich Böll

This is my favourite festive story, a satire on post-war hypocrisies, and one of Heinrich Böll’s more absurd fictions, an illustration of the weird and dysfunctional ways in which families operate at Christmas- (or any) time.

It concerns a family much disturbed by the psychological breakdown of their wife and mother, the narrator’s Aunt Milla. Each year, this well-do-do, middle-class family prepares for Christmas in the usual fashion, except with the onset of peace and economic recovery they can celebrate as they did in the pre-war years: lavish tree decorations, candies and the familiar, familial singing of carols by the tree.

But that this year, on Candlemas Eve, when Milla’s son attempts to take the decorations down, she begins to scream: an impossible caterwauling without cease, one that can only be pacified if the family leaves the decorations up and by the ludicrous repetition of the Christmas traditions, every single evening, which includes the unseasonal spectacle of the recitation of the lyrics, “O Christmas Tree!” and “…in winter too, when snowflakes fall…” in the middle of June.

Aunt Milla is cocooned within the delusion that every day is Christmas Eve and her family are forced to collude in the delusion. Seasonal treats are prepared and eaten daily. Christmas trees are gone through at an alarming rate. Doctors and psychologists are of no use. The entire family, along with the local priest, are press-ganged into maintaining the façade to the detriment of their personal and moral degradation. At one point, paid actors are brought in to stand in for individuals members of the family who have bowed out.

It’s not the most heart-warming or traditional of Christmas fictions, but in a field of necessary, well-meaning tales offering cheer, optimism and good-will to et cetera… it stands out: a story that is comical and sad, about a clan so consumed by their aunt’s well-being they forfeit their own, and the hellish prospect of a family Christmas that never ends. If nothing else it may put some readers’ own and personal family horrors into perspective.

First broadcast – as ‘Nicht nur zur Weihnachtszeit’ in 1951 – and published in a collection with the same title in 1952.

Chosen by JL Bogenschneider, who is a writer of short fiction, with recent work published in The Island ReviewEllipsis ZineBurning House Press and theYork Literary Review.