Book review: Alone in Berlin
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann Penguin Classics, 509pp, £20
THIS NOVEL WAS FIRST PUBLISHED in Germany in 1947, its author dying from an overdose of morphine the same year. It has never previously appeared in English, and I confess to having heard of neither author nor novel, despite the fact that this excellent English translation by Michael Hofmann carries a remarkable endorsement from Primo Levi: "the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis".
Actually that is a bit misleading. Though two of the main characters, Otto and Anna Quangel, do engage in a campaign of resistance, they do so in isolation. They have no confederates, and their resistance achieves almost nothing. This is no conspiracy by high-ranking German officers for whom the assassination of Hitler was to be the occasion for a coup d'tat.
Otto Quangel works as a foreman in a former furniture factory which by the end of the second year of the war is making coffins instead. He once voted for the Nazis – in 1933, I would guess – but his revulsion has been promoted by his awakening sense of the criminal nature of the regime and then by the death of his only son in France in 1940. As for his resistance: every Sunday he laboriously writes a postcard denouncing the war or some aspect of the regime, and the next day either he or his wife leaves the card on the staircase of some office block. It may not seem much, but it demands courage. Almost all the cards are handed in at once by whoever finds them, and the Gestapo launches a search for their author.
Penguin bill the novel as a thriller, but though the narrative is gripping, the true fascination of the book is the picture it offers of working-class Berlin during the war. The Quangels are decent working people, but most of those who live around them are petty criminals, low-lifes, stool-pigeons, informers, drunks, Nazis. One Gestapo inspector has some decent instincts, but nevertheless pursues the case determinedly. Failing to make the progress expected of him, he learns that not even his uniform and rank can protect him in a criminal state.
Fallada presents us with a vivid and terrible picture of the Nazi regime seen from below. He shows other small acts of resistance – the woman who keeps a pet shop and tries to save one inadequate from the police; the old retired judge who, at great risk to himself, offers sanctuary to a Jewish woman. But most of all he makes us aware of what it means to live in a society in which law had been replaced by naked and cynical power, and where everyone is afraid. This is a wartime Germany that will be unfamiliar to most readers, but which they are never likely to forget.
The Quangels are defeated, but never broken. They survive in spirit because they are conscious that they have right on their side. The account of their trial is both grotesque and heartening: "The People's Court, which had nothing to do with the people and to which the people were not admitted even as silent spectators, was an instance of a perfect system: before any accused person even set foot in the courtroom, that person was for all intents and purposes already condemned, and there was no indication that he or she had anything to hope for there." Otto and Anna are doomed, but Otto can tell his contemptible lawyers, "At least I stayed decent. I didn't participate." "You know," he adds, "that the criminal is free and the decent man is sentenced to death … What we have here is the negation of God erected into a system of government."
Otto's defiance means that the novel – which, I should add, is sometimes funny – is not bleak. And Fallala offers another sign of hope. There is one decent woman, who left the party when she learned of the atrocities committed by her son as a member of the SS. She befriends a boy who has run away from his criminal father, offering him a new and better life. So after the darkness there is a faint gleam of hope.
This is an extraordinary novel. The wonder is that it has taken so long to be available in English. Hofmann's version is as good as one would expect from the translator who has introduced Joseph Roth to English-language readers.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 20 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West