Murke's Collected Silences
|"Murke's Collected Silences"|
Heinrich Böll by Armin Kübelbeck
|Author||Heinrich Böll (1917–1985)|
|Original title||"Doktor Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen"|
|Published in||Frankfurter Hefte (1955), Doktor Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen und andere Satiren (1958)|
|Published in English||1963|
"Murke's Collected Silences" (German: Doktor Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen) is a short story by German writer Heinrich Böll, first published in the Frankfurter Hefte in 1955 and in English in 1963. The story examines the relationship between the generations in post-war Germany and the country's post-war surge in religious belief.
The Murke of the title is a psychology graduate whose first job is as editor for the Cultural Department at Broadcasting House. Everything irritates him about the building: "The rugs were impressive, the corridors were impressive, the furniture was impressive, and the pictures were in excellent taste." He takes a little card his mother has sent him, with a picture of the Sacred Heart and "I prayed for you at St. James's Church," and sticks it up in one of the corridors behind an assistant producer's door frame.
Murke begins his days with a "panic-breakfast" by jumping onto the paternoster lift and travelling to the empty space at the top for a brief dose of fear that it might get stuck. He has also started collecting discarded tape – tape containing silence, where the speaker has paused – which he splices together and takes home to listen to in the evening. Soon he advances to recording his girlfriend sitting silently in front of a microphone.
The story centres on Murke's editing of two radio lectures on The Nature of Art by the powerful cultural critic Professor Bur-Malottke, author of "numerous books of a belletristic-philosophical-religious and art-historical nature". Working with Bur-Malottke, Murke "suddenly knew the meaning of hatred":
[H]e hated this great fat, handsome creature whose books – two million three hundred and fifty thousand copies of them – lay around in libraries, bookstores, bookshelves, and bookcases, and not for one second did he dream of suppressing this hatred."
Bur-Malottke had converted to Catholicism in 1945, the high point of post-war German guilt, but now has second thoughts about his Nature of Art tapes, fearing he "might be blamed for contributing to the religious overtones in radio". The tapes contain the word "God" 27 times, and Bur-Malottke wants them changed to "that higher Being Whom we revere", a phrase more consistent with his pre-conversion beliefs. He asks that the technicians record the new words, then splice them in instead of "God", rather than have him re-record the talk.
The editing is complicated by the need to record different cases – nominatives, as well as genitives and vocatives ("of that higher Being Whom we revere" and "O Thou higher Being Whom we revere!") – much to Bur-Malottke's irritation and Murke's satisfaction. Half a minute will have to be cut from each Nature of Art lecture to accommodate the extra words. "It was clear that Bur-Malottke had not thought of these complications; he began to sweat, the grammatical transposition bothered him."
Bur-Malottke pursed his lips toward the muzzle of the mike as if he wanted to kiss it, sweat ran down his face, and through the glass Murke observed with cold detachment the agony that Bur-Malottke was enduring; then he suddenly switched Bur-Malottke off, stopping the moving tape that was recording Bur-Malottke's words and feasted his eyes on the spectacle of Bur-Malottke behind the glass, soundless, like a fat, handsome fish. He switched on his microphone and his voice came quietly into the studio, "I'm sorry, but our tape is defective, and I must ask you to begin again at the beginning, with the nominatives."
Bur-Malottke approaches the director afterwards to ask that the station review all the tapes he has recorded since 1945: "I cannot bear the thought that after my death, tapes may be run off on which I say things I no longer believe. Particularly in some of my political utterances, during the fervor of 1945 ..."
Murke's boss later congratulates him for having been able to sit through Bur-Malottke's lectures. The boss once had to listen three times to a four-hour Hitler speech. When he began the editing he was still a Nazi and by the time he had finished he wasn't – "a drastic cure ... but very effective".
A technician gives 12 of Bur-Malottke's "Gods" to an assistant producer who is editing a play about an atheist whose questions are answered by silence. "Atheist (louder still): 'And who will remember me when I have turned into leaves?' (Silence)." The producer wishes he had a voice saying "God" at those points, and is amazed when the technician hands him Murke's tin of "Gods" ("you really are a godsend"). The technician resolves to keep the producer's spare silences for Murke's collection. There had been no silences at all in Bur-Malottke's Nature of Art lectures.
The story ends with the producer taking a crumbled piece of paper out of his pocket ("Funny, isn't it, the corny stuff you can come across in this place?"), the card Murke had stuck in his door frame earlier that day: "I prayed for you at St. James's Church."
- Black, Martin David (2006). Heinrich Böll, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006.
- Böll, Heinrich (1995). "Murke's Collected Silences", The Stories of Heinrich Böll, Northwestern University Press.
- Sonnenfeld, Albert. "They That Have Not Heard Shall Understand": A Study of Heinrich Böll," in Harry John Mooney, Thomas F. Staley (eds.), The Shapeless God: Essays on Modern Fiction, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1968, 187ff.
- Wilson, A. Leslie. "Heinrich Boll, The Art of Fiction No. 74", The Paris Review, Spring 1983, no. 87.