When we meet him, Walter is a young, feckless, self-centred, nihilistic washing machine repairman living in an economically depressed and condemned post-war West German city. He has been through many apprenticeships prior to his current role – and given them up. He has a seemingly insatiable hunger for bread with all its literal and figurative meaning. He is a bad son. He is in a superficial relationship with his boss’s daughter, Ulla. He loathes his current job. But, then, change is coming. He has received a telegram from his father, asking him to meet a young girl, Hedwig Muller, who hails from his hometown, off the train. She has come to the city as a trainee teacher. Walter’s father wants him to look out for her and help her find accommodation. Walter, of course, does not relish a task that will take him away from his own self-interest. Like all great heroes in potential, he seems initially to reject the very experience that will be central to the fulfilment of his heroism. But go he does. On meeting Hedwig, his entire life and its attendant values are questioned in an instant. In her green coat, with her innocent beauty, she embodies everything that he lacks. She transcends the era of material and spiritual deprivation. She symbolises growth and new life. Walter is ashamed of himself next to her; he already dimly understands his moral corruption – but now it is no longer acceptable to him. And, more to the point, he finds himself immediately in love. With Hedwig and with a new direction she promises.
The novella traces Walter’s journey from initial fear at the emotions and examination that Hedwig has prompted in him to acceptance of love and the assumption of the challenges to the self – to subordinate one’s interests to another and to become the person that you can be. From latency to possibility. But it is so much more than that again. In Walter we see the embodiment of a place and an era, and Böll’s hopes for his nation: redemption, self-esteem and the rejection of slavish materialist values in favour of spiritual, social and emotional connectedness and authentic empowerment. During the course of the novella, there is flashback within the flashback – drawn with rich colour symbolism of yellows, blood reds – as Walter remembers his school days, the death of his mother, the endless quest for bread on the black market, and shame, always shame. The past is continually punctuating Walter’s present, as he struggles to come to terms with a terrible legacy that he inherited, rather than participated in. But the future, with Hedwig, stands before him. The past can teach us, but we must never let it master us – beautifully and so wittily played upon in the novella’s concluding paragraph.
Das Brot evokes an era of quiet horrors, hypocrisy, humiliation and malaise. Despite its brevity, it is one of the most powerful records in fiction of that crushing time and, for all of its direct and indirect criticism of the people struggling to survive it, one of the most compassionate. Those looking for plot twists aplenty will not find it here. This is a tale of inner life. But it is also one which focuses on and valorises epiphany. The moment when. It is not what Walter does after he changes that is central to this novella, which, indeed, takes us only as far as the moment when. It is the fact that he found the opportunity and courage to change at all. And it is presented to us, by Böll, as something of a miracle – for the self and for society. A common miracle, maybe, but no less extraordinary and affirming for that.