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Heinrich Böll: Haus ohne Hüter (UK: The Unguarded House; US: Tomorrow and Yesterday)

The main theme of this novel is the situation of war widows and war orphans. The story is told from the perspective of two boys, whose fathers (whom they never knew) were killed during the war. Heinrich Brielach lives with his mother and a succession of”uncles”. Heinrich has to work for a living and soon gets to be very smart at working the black market to help support the family. He is the one responsible both for managing the family budget (for example, he has to budget to get his mother some dental work) and providing food. In other words, though still a boy, he has to be an adult for his mother. When his mother has a baby – a girl called Wilma – Heinrich also has to help look after her.

His friend is Martin Bach who has the advantage of coming from a family which is somewhat better off financially. His father was a well-known poet, Raimund Bach. However, his mother, Nella, still has trouble accepting the loss of her husband ten years later, though she does live with”Uncle” Albert. Nella is nervous, fusses over her son and tends to drift off into daydreams. The grandmother, who lives with them, does have money, which makes their life easier. There is a twist in their life, when Gäseler appears. He was Raimund Bach’s lieutenant in the war and it was he who sent Raimund on a risky mission, knowing that he was likely to be killed. Gäseler has now done well but he says that he does not think much about the war. Nella, in her nervous condition, cannot feel any hatred for him, only indifference as well as indifference to the war. The book ends on a mildly optimistic note but leaves questions about the issues of war widows and war orphans, particularly those from poorer families, as well as a sense of uneasiness at the Germans’ reaction towards the war.

Publishing history

First published 1954 by Kiepenheuer & Witsch
First English translation 1957 by Arco
Translated by Mervyn Savill