Action Will Be Taken: An Action-Packed Story by Heinrich Boll

Probably one of the strangest interludes in my life was the time I spent as an employee in Alfred Wunsiedel’s factory. By nature, I am inclined more to pensiveness and inactivity than to work, but now and again prolonged financial difficulties compel me – for pensiveness is no more profitable than inactivity – to take on a so-called job. Finding myself once again at a low ebb of this kind, I put myself in the hands of the employment office and was sent with seven other fellow-sufferers to Wunsiedel’s factory, where we were to undergo an aptitude test.

The exterior of the factory was enough to arouse my suspicions: the factory was built entirely of glass brick, and my aversion to well-lit buildings and well-lit rooms is as strong as my aversion to work. I became even more suspicious when we were immediately served breakfast in the well-lit, cheerful coffee shop: pretty waitresses brought us eggs, coffee and toast, orange juice was served in tastefully designed jugs, goldfish pressed their bored faces against the sides of pale-green aquariums. The waitresses were so cheerful that they appeared to be bursting with good cheer. Only a strong effort of will – so it seemed to me -restrained them from singing away all day long. They were as crammed with unsung songs as chickens with unlaid eggs.

Right away I realized something that my fellow-sufferers evidently failed to realize: that this breakfast was already part of the test; so I chewed away reverently, with the full appreciation of a person who knows he is supplying his body with valuable elements. I did something which normally no power on earth can make me do: I drank orange juice on an empty stomach, left the coffee and egg untouched, as well as most of the toast, got up, and paced up and down in the coffee shop, pregnant with action.

As a result I was the first to be ushered into the room where the questionnaires were spread out on attractive tables. The walls were done in a shade of green that would have summoned the word “delightful” to the lips of interior decoration enthusiasts. The room appeared to be empty, and yet I was so sure of being observed that I behaved as someone pregnant with action behaves when he believes himself unobserved: I ripped my pen impatiently from my pocket, unscrewed the top, sat down at the nearest table and pulled the questionnaire toward me, the way irritable customers snatch at the bill in a restaurant.

Question No. 1: Do you consider it right for a human being to possess only two arms, two legs, eyes, and ears?

Here for the first lime I reaped the harvest of my pensive nature and wrote without hesitation: “Even four arms, legs and ears would not be adequate for my driving energy. Human beings are very poorly equipped.”

Question No. 2: How many telephones can you handle at one time?

Here again the answer was as easy as simple arithmetic: “When there are only seven telephones,” I wrote, “I get impatient; there have to be nine before I feel I am working to capacity.”

Question No. 3: How do you spend your free time?

My answer: “I no longer acknowledge the term free time – on my fifteenth birthday I eliminated it from my vocabulary, for in the beginning was the act.”

I got the job. Even with nine telephones I really didn’t feel I was working to capacity. I shouted into the mouth-pieces: “Take immediate action!” or; “Do something! – We must have some action – Action will be taken – Action has been taken – Action should be taken.”  But as a rule – for I felt this was in keeping with the tone of the place – I used the imperative.

Of considerable interest were the noon-hour breaks, when we consumed nutritious foods in an atmosphere of silent good cheer.  Wunsiedel’s factory was swarming with people who were obsessed with telling you the story of their lives, as indeed vigorous personalities are fond of doing. The story of their lives is more important to them than their lives, you have only to press a button, and immediately it is covered with spewed-out exploits.

Wunsiedel had a right-hand man called Broschek, who had in turn made a name for himself by supporting seven children and a paralyzed wife by working night-shifts in his student days, and successfully carrying on four business agencies, besides which he had passed two examinations with honors in two years. When asked by reporters: “When do you sleep, Mr. Broschek?” he had replied: “It’s a crime to sleep!”

Wunsiedel’s secretary had supported a paralyzed husband and four children by knitting, at the same time graduating in psychology and German history as well as breeding shepherd dogs, and she had become famous as a night-club singer where she was known as Vamp Number Seven.

Wunsiedel himself was one of those people who every morning, as they open their eyes, make up their minds to act. “I must act,” they think as they briskly tie their bathrobe belts around them. “I must act,” they think as they shave, triumphantly watching their beard hairs being washed away with the lather: these hirsute vestiges are the first daily sacrifices to their driving energy. The more intimate functions also give these people a sense of satisfaction: water swishes, paper is used. Action has been taken. Bread get eaten, eggs are decapitated.

With Wunsiedel, the most trivial activity looked like action: the way he put on his hat, the way-quivering with energy – he buttoned up his overcoat, the kiss he gave his wife, everything was action.

When he arrived at his office he greeted his secretary with a cry of “Let’s have some action!” And in ringing tones she would call back: “Action will be taken!” Wunsiedel then went from department to department, calling out his cheerful: “Let’s have some action!” Everyone would answer: “Action will be taken!” And I would call back to him too, with a radiant smile, when he looked into my office: “Action will be Taken!”

Within a week I had increased the number of telephones on my desk to eleven, within two weeks to thirteen, and every morning on the streetcar I enjoyed thinking up new imperatives, or chasing the words take action through various tenses and modulations: for two whole days I kept saying the same sentence over and over again because I thought it sounded so marvelous: “Action ought to have been taken;” for another two days it was: “Such action ought not to have been taken.”

So I was really beginning to feel I was working to capacity when there actually was some action. One Tuesday morning – I had hardly settled down at my desk – Wunsiedel rushed into my office crying his “let’s have some action!” But an inexplicable something in his face made me hesitate to reply, in a cheerful gay voice as the rules dictated: “Action will be taken!” I must have paused too long, for Wunsiedel, who seldom raised his voice, shouted at me: “Answer! Answer, you know the rules!” And I answered, under my breath, reluctantly, like a child who is forced to say: I am a naughty child. It was only by a great effort that I managed to bring out the sentence: “Action will be taken,” and hardly had I uttered it when there really was some action: Wunsiedel dropped to the floor. As he fell he rolled over onto his side and lay right across the open doorway. I knew at once, and I confirmed it when I went slowly around my desk and approached the body on the floor: he was dead.

Shaking my head I stepped over Wunsiedel, walked slowly along the corridor to Broschek’s office, and entered without knocking.  Broschek was sitting at his desk, a telephone receiver in each hand, between his teeth a ballpoint pen with which he was making notes on a writing pad, while with his bare feet he was operating a knitting machine under the desk. In this way he helps to clothe his family. “We’ve had some action,” I said in a low voice.

Broschek spat out the ballpoint pen, put down the two receivers, reluctantly detached his toes from the knitting machine.

“What action?” he asked.

“Wunsiedel is dead,” I said.

“No,” said Broschek.

“Yes,” I said, “come and have a look!”

“No,” said Broschek, “that’s impossible,” but he put on his slippers and followed me along the corridor.

“No,” he said, when we stood beside Wunsiedel’s corpse, “no, no!”  I did not contradict him. I carefully turned Wunsiedel over onto his back, closed his eyes, and looked at him pensively.

I felt something like tenderness for him, and realized for the first time that I had never hated him. On his face was that expression which one sees on children who obstinately refuse to give up their faith in Santa Claus, even though the arguments of their playmates sound so convincing.

“No,” said Broschek, “no.”

“We must take action;” I said quietly to Broschek. “Yes,” said Broschek, “we must take action.”

Action was taken: Wunsiedel was buried; and I was delegated to carry a wreath of artificial roses behind his coffin, for I am equipped with not only a penchant for pensiveness and inactivity but also a face and figure that go extremely well with dark suits. Apparently as I walked along behind Wunsiedel’s coffin carrying the wreath of artificial roses I looked superb. I received an offer from a fashionable firm of funeral directors to join their staff as a professional mourner. “You are a born mourner,” said the manager, “your outfit would be provided by the firm. Your face – simply superb!”

I handed in my notice to Broschek, explaining that I had never really felt I was working to capacity there; that, in spite of the thirteen telephones, some of my talents were going to waste. As soon as my first professional appearance as a mourner was over I knew: This is where I belong, this is what I am cut out for.

Pensively I stand behind the coffin in the funeral chapel, holding a simple bouquet, while the organ plays Handel’s Largo, a piece that does not receive nearly the respect it deserves. The cemetery café is my regular haunt; there I spend the intervals between my professional engagements, although sometimes I walk behind coffins which I have not been engaged to follow, I pay for flowers out of my own pocket and join the welfare worker who walks behind the coffin of some homeless person. From time to time I also visit Wunsiedel’s grave, for after all I owe it to him that I discovered my true vocation, a vocation in which pensiveness is essential and inactivity my duty.

It was not till much later that I realized I had never bothered to find out what was being produced in Wunsiedel’s factory. I expect it was soap.

Translated by Leila Vennewitz

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