Surrealpolitik: The Safety Net

Author: Heinrich Boll

Brooklyn, NY: Melville House (2010, first published in 1979)

Quick Summary

A frequently cited classic of the genre "terrorism novels," notable for having a thoughtful response to the Baader-Meinhof gang. A newspaper owner becomes president of an elite establishment circle known as The Association, becoming a prime target of terrorist assassination, and thereafter must live in the close embrace of security forces and systems, "turning the most trivial events into a kind of battle against an invisible enemy" as Salman Rushdie's introduction puts it. As Rushdie notes, this novel is about the effects of fright on the frightened. Rushdie also writes: "The foreground is occupied by more or less 'respectable' people and by the security forces -- the 'safety net' of the title -- who must protect them; and Boll's message, for this is certainly a message-novel, is that this security system is as destructive a force as the terrorists it seeks to resist. If Beverloh and Veronica are the novel's devils, the security police are its deep blue sea." The novel is particularly good at highlighting how indistinguishable are protection and surveillance. The protagonist and his family are constantly under guard, which equates to constantly being spied upon. The surveillance extends to the whole town, which becomes flooded with cops, scandals that would have remained secret are exposed, everyone becomes more distant and guarded with each other, cool to each other, resentful of each other, take to spying on each other, like Erwin and his binoculars focused on the breasts of his topless 18-year-old neighbor on the terrace of the next house (55). Surveillance becomes a cancer, it changes behavior and values, inhibits openness and community. Yet everyone is nice and we see all sides of everything, as in Sabine being attracted both to policemen and to terrorists (or in any case to the main terrorist, Beverloh, as a youth, and later to Hendler, her main guardian, who she runs away with in the end). Meanwhile, money and power continually eat away at everything that once had value to people, from the literal power-hungriness of the encroaching coal mining operation eating up property (and literally burying the past) at an alarming rate to the larger and increasingly more conservative newspapers gradually eating up all their smaller and more liberal competitors. Neighborhoods, communities, the past, real security in the sense of feeling safe, and the liberal tradition, all being inexorably eaten up and buried. There's a repeating theme of yearning for something undefinable, a repeating phrase "somewhere -- where?" or slight variations, occurring in multiple places throughout. There are also multiple references to the "reformed radical" Rolf building with child's blocks on the floor (42, 152, 173)!


There are 30 quotes currently associated with this book.

[From the introduction by Salman Rushdie:] Boll's message, for this is certainly a message-novel, is that this security system is as destructive a force as the terrorists it seeks to resist. If Beverloh and Veronica are the novel's devils, the security police are its deep blue sea. (page viii)
Tags: [Fascism, Terror]
After all, the affair of Pliefger's birthday cake had been extremely serious, and as for Father -- he was already dreaming of flying saucers descending on him and Käthe, now he was even scared of birds since that business with the duck and since old Kortschede had gone completely around the bend at the click of a lighter. And there had been that terrible business with Plotetti's cigarette package. (page )
Tags: [Fascism, Literary/Poetic, Madness]
The possible thoughts of the security guards killed all spontaneity in him...It wasn't only the security measures that deterred him from simply walking to the village: it was also his legs, which no longer behaved as well as they used to, and he couldn't have said which deterred him more: his legs or that inescapable surveillance. (page 23)
Tags: [Fascism, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
These and other attentions and courtesies had long been accepted by him as indications of his increasingly rigorous imprisonment, in which everything, every courteous gestures, was transformed into both surveillance and threat. (page 29)
Tags: [Fascism, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
Since the incident with Kortschede, the last vestiges of irony had vanished from their comments on security surveillance; only Bleibl occasionally permitted himself a passing shot. Their relations with the guards had changed too, since Kortschede's fit their friendly but sometimes patronizing manner was no longer possible, and since the affair of Pliefger's birthday cake joking wasn't possible either -- there was work for Kiernter the psychologist, there were long conferences with Holzpuke (in charge of security), who asked for forbearance, after all the guards were only doing their duty, and as for themselves, surely they wanted to safeguard their lives, so they must accept apparent pedantries -- such as a guard inspecting the toilet before one of them used it, or "lady visitors" being closely scrutinized -- and, please, escapades such as those occasionally indulged in by Käthe should be avoided. Yet they should have realized that there was no such thing as security, either internal or external; he knew that all these measures had to be yet would prevent nothing. (page 32)
Tags: [Fascism, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
They all knew of his weakness, of course, but didn't know where it originated -- only Käthe, he had told her all about it, yet even she didn't know that it was the same with cigarettes as with the milk soup: that taste, that smell, that Virginia aroma -- he never found it again, never found it, kept looking for it, probably smoked to find it again, and never did. (page 35)
Tags: [Everyday Life, Literary/Poetic, Dreams]
Nice? Yes. The terms "nice" and "niceness" said nothing, nothing whatever, about what a person was capable of. It was just that one shouldn't trust nice people too much. (page 37)
Tags: [Terror, Conspiracy, Literary/Poetic]
Amplanger senior had long been representing Bleibl's interests. He was no longer himself, he was merely the image of himself: irreplaceable as an image; had allowed himself to be deceived by an ever-increasing income, by a proliferating fortune -- there must be something very mysterious in Blurtmehl's hands for him to arrive at such insights under those hands, whereas Grebnitzer, even during long sessions of questioning, never penetrated to the heart of the problem. After all, there was nothing organic to discover, he had never had a heart attack, even his blood count was excellent -- ad yet there was that lead, that chill, in his limbs. Sometimes he actually feared a total paralysis when seated there t his desk powerless "at the power center, at the very heart of capitalism," while his fortune proliferated and he was anxiously concerned not to let a single cigarette "go to waste." (page 44)
Tags: [Capitalism, Simulacra/Illusion, Literary/Poetic]
Who does like it, anyway, always having the police all over the place with their transceivers and cameras on the street? (page 54)
Tags: [Fascism, Literary/Poetic]
[T]his constant surveillance was causing mental distress leading to psychic damage, and that anyway it was futile, for if they were going to strike at all it would be somewhere quite different. (page 66)
Tags: [Fascism, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
[Surveillance] gave rise to tension, friction, intimate knowledge that should never have been allowed to turn into familiarities and yet did. It was difficult to behave all the time as if such things were normal... (page 67)
Tags: [Fascism, Literary/Poetic]
Gigantic dredges were on the march, mechanical shovels amiably-pitilessly-innocently-inexorably devoured the forest, swallowing the earth, spitting it out again at a great distance, exhumed the dead (reverently, ever so reverently), tearing down churches and villages and castles, and Käthe got "the shudders" when she drove through Neu-Iffenhoven with its new houses and churches. To shudder was good. (page 71)
Tags: [Community, Environment, Fascism, Literary/Poetic]
The emissions from the power stations, already turned to clouds, moved across the sky, the effect was idyllic, as evocative of nature as in some Dutch paintings, or early Gainsboroughs and Constables. (page 86)
Tags: [Simulacra/Illusion, Literary/Poetic]
[N]ot even this was considered advisable now, since that day not long ago when one duck had veered off, in a completely unnatural way, from the flock that was so charmingly patterning the dark water; it swam toward the shore, and out of the bushes rushed Hendler, the young security guard, shouting "Take cover! Down!" and thrusting Kit and himself down onto the grass, flinging himself beside them, while the duck, which later turned out to be made of wood, ended its unnatural course at a projecting piece of turf and began to spin even more unnaturally. Handler had taken it for a floating bomb, camouflaged as a duck or hidden inside the duck. Fortunately he was mistaken...Ever since then he had been suspicious of the ducks, he even began to distrust the birds he had so long enjoyed observing. Presumably it was possible to develop remote-control mechanical birds which, filled with high explosives, would suddenly switch to horizontal flight and fly through an open window bearing havoc in their artificial breasts, in their artificial bellies..."Even the birds of the air aren't to be trusted anymore."...Come to think of it, mechanical birds were nothing new, and he recalled a conversation with Veronica on the terrace in Eickelhof, when Veronica had maintained that artificial birds flew "more naturally" than real ones, just as wound-up toy birds "walk more naturally than real ones..." (page 91-92,93)
Tags: [Simulacra/Illusion, Literary/Poetic]
No bombs, no machine pistols, no "hot" birthday cakes -- just an accident in the bathtub -- what would they get out of that? What good would it do them to prove their power without being able to demonstrate that power publicly? (page 98)
Tags: [Terror, Media, Literary/Poetic]
[Blurtmehl speaking] "Yes, there's no such thing as security -- and yet there has to be a security system." (page 101)
Tags: [Fascism, Literary/Poetic]
"Disgrace," he said [speaking of the terrorists], "isn't the right word for them, they know no such thing as disgrace, no such thing as limits. Incidentally, do we know such a thing as disgrace?" (page 108)
Tags: [Terror, Literary/Poetic]
"What do you expect -- for me to send him our condolences, invite him for coffee, tell him how much I regret his having implored us to swallow him before anyone else did? Zummerling, for instance? The fact is that Blume prefers to be swallowed by us. He won't be short of money, he can even keep the old family house. Only his work, the liberal tradition -- that I can't give back to him, no one can give it back to him...Disgrace, yes, of course, it's a disgrace, but just ask the two Amplangers whether the feel any disgrace. Young Amplanger will tell you: 'Is it a disgrace for a chicken to pick up a grain thrown to it?' (page 109)
Tags: [Fascism, Capitalism, Literary/Poetic]
"It's the era of nice monsters, Käthe, and we must count ourselves among them. They're all nice, Veronica's nice too, Beverloh was nice, he was a regular paragon of niceness..." (page 114)
Tags: [Fascism, Terror, Conspiracy, Literary/Poetic, Bureaucracy]
What's coming now is the very, very new era which nobody will look back on with longing. (page 115)
Tags: [Everyday Life, Fascism, Literary/Poetic]
The best we can do is acknowledge the fact that we are prisoners -- that we'll perish in security, perhaps from security. (page 123)
Tags: [Everyday Life, Fascism, Culture, Literary/Poetic]
"Yes, I do, I want to go on with you -- yet they're probably already practicing strongholds, looking into hypnosis, drugs, perhaps with drugs they'll persuade a security officer to 'grab me.' He will be a nice, well-drilled, thoroughly healthy, thoroughly vetted young policeman who will suddenly throw himself upon me with an apparently protective gesture that conceals the murderous grip. There is no security -- computers, rockets, rocketlike artificial birds, psychomanipulations, remote psychoterrorism -- so we might as well resign ourselves to the loneliness of extreme, luxurious imprisonment. (page 124)
Tags: [Everyday Life, Fascism, Culture, Literary/Poetic]
Did one have to eavesdrop on one's children, take them by surprise, to discover their warmth, to gain insight into their lives? (page 127)
Tags: [Fascism, Culture, Literary/Poetic]
The victims, the martyrs, only served to enhance the power of the media: it was a kind of sorcery, an irrationalism, enough to drive one into total paralysis. (page 133)
Tags: [Terror, Media, Literary/Poetic]
Once again he had to enter the gray area where discretion and security collide and one or the other could explode. If someone had ever predicted that it would one day be part of his security duties to find out in which month and by whom a woman was pregnant, he would have laughed. (page 194)
Tags: [Fascism, Literary/Poetic]
"You know, during those interviews I had an idea: one could prepare them in advance, for radio and television, as a sort of stockpile: on amalgamation, wages, cultural affairs, on domestic and foreign policy, on security matters. One could even introduce slight variations to provide a semblance of's possible that the taped word sounds more alive than the live word -- Veronica once tried to explain to me that artificial birds, mechanical ones, can walk more naturally than live birds -- I keep thinking about that -- in the same way a sound or video tape might sound much more spontaneous than a live interview -- what they call live is deader than dead. As dead as the little paper that died under my hands -- and proliferates..." (page 226-227)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Simulacra/Illusion, Media, Literary/Poetic]
[With regard to swallowing newspapers] So, after Blume, we'll swallow Küster, then Bobering, and it will all turn into a gray, horrible newspaper mush, with a few tiny dashes of liberalism. I have allowed our little paper to decay, I have allowed it to die..." (page 227)
Tags: [Capitalism, Media, Literary/Poetic]
I don't like the kind of houses they build for themselves, don't like their taste, let alone Fischer's. Even the finest paintings they have hanging there, paintings I even like, seem like forgeries to me even when they've been proved to be genuine -- especially ten. There's something about them that kills art, even music -- I'm glad our child has left all that behind. (page 228)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Simulacra/Illusion, Literary/Poetic]
[Holzpuke] "No, but I have a few more questions for you -- about your friends. What you were saying just now -- that pride, that stubbornness, that being excluded -- or sense of being excluded -- those conclusions -- those ideas -- how big do you suppose it is, the group you have defined in this way?"

[Rolf] "You could figure that out very easily from your own files and those of other authorities working with you: we are all listed, aren't we -- it's not that we have a list of ourselves -- we don't know how many we are, but you should know, just take a look at this army, this phantom army -- review it -- let those hundreds of thousands of young women and men and their children parade before you, if only in your mind's eye, and ask yourself whether all their education, their potential intelligence, their strength and glory, exist merely to be kept under surveillance." (page 239-240)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Everyday Life, Fascism, Culture, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
"They stink, you just can't smell it anymore."...Things became quite awkward when she began to sniff at people and wrinkle her nose, saying laconically: "Stinks" or "Doesn't stink," and it was quite clear that she didn't only mean this morally, toward the end she spoke openly of a "stinking German cleanliness." He had to let her go... (page 256)
Tags: [Everyday Life, Fascism, Culture, Terror, Literary/Poetic]