The Dead Souls Scandal


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Heinrich Böll's meticulously literary accountant is the persistent, albeit reticent "narrator" of this familiar tale of the short-sightedness of a bloated economy, of war profiteering, and ultimately of fictional characters' exacting vengeance upon the realm of the living...

It's impossible to say at the moment which of the things you can think about your own city would be worthwhile observations in terms of other people hearing them, other people in your own city or in their own cities. And then in these last weeks in July and in August, there was the feeling that one should probably have all of the time, that it is self-indulgent, lucky, luxurious, urgent, exacting, to make observations about the state of your own city, not with other peoples' cameras which record the same movements in the same places over and over. But then in the last weeks it may have been as if saying anything about the state of these observations just seemed self-indulgent and facile, facile and even listless, about the possibility to walk along and look I was thinking is that it's inconsequential at the moment to tell that story, the story of a lover of 19th century Russian literature who during a wartime economy is hired as an inappropriately precise, upright, thorough, meticulous, accountant, keeping the books for a company in an industry much in demand in the economy of the war and for that reason, and others, it had been possible to create a familiar situation in which a number of the accounts payable by/to this particular company had little to do with reality, in that they did not (even remotely) exist. The names that had been chosen, perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps reflecting some detail of the parallel and submerged economy of scholars, by a school friend of the accountant, a certain expert in Russian literature with particular preferences for particular writers, had an uncanny similarity to the characters appearing in and also writers of the novels which were favorites of this friend of the accountant scrutinizing the accounts of this company. A preponderance of names all belonging to the category of those characters and writers of the much appreciated novels of this student raised the suspicions of the accountant, who presumed that such a specific constellation of names would/could have been assembled by only someone that incidentally he knew, someone who, as we find out at the end of this story, was paid, per name, 10 units of the country's currency at that time to provide these "fake names" - fake in the terms of business, in that they were to stand in for people who could be paid for services that were not rendered, names for people who did not exist or provide these services, or any other in the realm of a wartime industrial economy, names for individuals that in fact were simply fictional (twice over) reincarnated stand-ins, for these accounts neither existed, were paid for, nor did they represent any exchange of goods or services.
In the story we are led/induced to believe that it is a certain (and irrepressible) intellectual dignity of the accountant which causes him the necessity to expose the names of the accounts in a court of law and thus to open an investigation into the ultimately reprehensible, corrupted business practices of the said company. It is perhaps a combination of the distaste felt by the lover of 19th century literature for the association of these names, sacred to him to activities adding up to that manual labor and those tedious components of the running of the preparations and execution of modern warfare, more likely the impetus came from a combination of the outrage at the connection of such literary figures (who are very much subject to their own ethical constructs and contexts (and here we speak of not only the characters in novels but also of their writers) to not only the debased ethical morass and the small machinery which is coerced and coordinated from near and far in order to conduct war, not only the manipulation and coercion and implementation of those whose expertise is most often considered unmarketable and unprofitable, and is much sought after for other reasons in addition to that one, that is, the labor of intellectuals. It may be that the thought of such characters, guilty, to be sure, for other reasons, being used for material profiteering, and for seemingly ubiquitous wartime material profiteering that in its execution is just an assembly of the same tedious financial practices that can go similarly unnoticed at other times. In the end the only part which was kept secret, after a trial, was the paltry sum of each payment per name made by the name-supplier. But this individual, who in this excerpt has only been described in terms of his intellectual passions, cannot be considered above such petty and longstanding forces as the compulsion for revenge. As is made clear in the novel leading to the point of the trial, he is an individual with sufficient personal reasons to have sought or at the very least taken the opportunity for revenge; while the form of his revenge...




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