The overwhelming feeling you get when reading this book is the desperate struggle for short term survival. The background is a German city (possibly Cologne) in the first
Days and weeks after the capitulation of the German army in 1945. Every conversation is focused on bread - not even full meals, just slices of bread. The city is bleak and devastated, the characters are transient figures struggling, dazed and nauseous, into whatever the future may hold. Their pasts are briefly mentioned, but the conditions in which they find themselves allow for almost total dislocation from their past lives.
The language of the book is austere, the characters are not clearly distinguishable, the colours mentioned - apart from grey destruction - are greenish and yellowish hazes. These tune in with the bilious, nausea of the characters as they continuously search for food and shelter. Throughout the story each character is portrayed as exhausted, struggling, nauseous.
The novels main character has deserted the German Army in the final days of the war, and under a certain sentence of death for desertion, has assumed numerous identities as he flees. He has, however, promised a dead comrade that he will return a coat to his comrade's widow. A will is discovered in the lining of the coat and this yields an subplot of intrigue and corruption. The main character meanwhile meets and briefly lives with a dazed, tragic woman who has been psychologically damaged by the war.
The novel's main impression is the exhaustion of emotion, the breakdown of society brings about a breakdown of morality and order. Stealing and dishonesty of all kinds are part of daily life, as are small gestures of generosity. In the broken cityscape, there is neither trust nor complete anarchy, just a meandering from one slice of bread to the next. Towards the end of the book , the main character has established a certain routine which allows him to steal coal from trains, which gives him some power to barter.
Boll's austere tale, gives us a view of the amoral aftermath of a societal dislocation. While neither describing nor moralizing, he shows us a set of normal characters and the lives they adopt to survive in the much reduced circumstances.