Monday, 14 June 2010

'all around me there are enemies'

Alone In Berlin 
by Hans Fallada

What was the likelihood that a 60-year-old novel of German resistance to the Nazis, recently translated for the first time into English by Michael Hofmann, would find its way onto the bestseller lists? I noticed the new paperback proudly displayed in my local Waterstones alongside the usual suspects and was surprised to see this article recently enumerating its success. With over 100,000 copies already sold by Penguin in the UK and booming sales by Melville House in the US there is no doubt that this book is a hit, especially surprising as it is that most unpopular of objects- the book in translation. What is the reason for the success? The book has been made as attractive as possible by being marketed as a thriller but it would seem that word of mouth and book groups have also played their part in powering sales. I'd had my interest raised by some positive reviews from fellow bloggers and whilst I did enjoy what is a fascinating insight into life under the Nazi regime I'd be lying if I said I hadn't found it a bit of a slog at times. Its 568 pages were written in less than a month so this is far from a polished novel. That haste produces some moments of hurtling pace but also some moments of confusion and plot-lines or characters that lead into dead ends. That said, the book certainly deserves its praise, the atmosphere of fear and persecution drips from the page and we become so complicit with the resistance of the German citizens within that reading the book at times has you casting furtive glances over your shoulder.

Based on a real case (on which the new paperback contains extra information and wartime documents) the novel centres around Otto and Anna Quangel. For many years Otto has been a quiet unassuming presence in the factory at which he is a foreman and within the shabby Berlin apartment he shares with the wife he has never been able to articulate much too. When they receive a telegram informing them of the death of their son at the front a single unguarded comment from Anna - 'you and that Fuhrer of yours!' - is enough to send Otto on a course of action that will place them both in as much danger as their son ever faced on the front line. How to offer resistance to a state that rules with such an iron fist? Otto's plan is simple: to write postcards containing slogans against the Fuhrer, the Party and the war and to disperse them around the city in the hope that the slow drip of information will galvanise resistance and bring down the regime. Anna is dismissive of this small gesture until she is reminded that whatever its size 'if they get wind of it, it'll cost us our lives...'

The man who has made a career out of being the quiet man seems well suited to the task of being an invisible saboteur and he plans his drops well before even committing his pen to paper.

...there was a moment when Otto Quangel was all alone on the stairs, or at least had his part of the stairs all to himself, when all of life seemed to have withdrawn into the offices. That was the moment to do it. In fact, everything was exactly the way he had imagined it. People in a hurry, not looking each other in the face, dirty windowpanes letting in only a murky grey light, no porter, no one anywhere to take an interest in anyone.

Anna's nervousness about the enterprise just grows and grows beginning in earnest when they settle down to write the very first words together.

At that instant she grasped that this very first sentence was Otto's  absolute and irrevocable declaration of war, and also what that meant: war between, on the one side, the two of them, poor, small, insignificant workers who could be extinguished for just a word or two, and on the other, the Fuhrer, the Party, the whole apparatus in all its power and glory, with three-fourths or even four-fifths of the German people behind it. And the two of them in this little room in Jablonski Strasse!
In such a large novel the Quangels are naturally not our only focus. Fallada's cast-list ranges from the lowest common criminals to the highest Party officials and he manages to marshal them well for the most part. Enno Kluge and Emil Borkhausen are particularly memorable, both careering from one form of trouble to another. Kluge finds himself arrested at one point on suspicion of being the man responsible for the postcards and however selfish and abhorrent he has been we cannot help but feel sympathy as we watch how incapable he is to resist the interrogation at the hands of the Gestapo. It is the complexity of the characters that makes them believable, Fallada isn't interested in a story that contains bad Nazis and good German citizens. Everybody has their weaknesses and human frailties and every character is shown to fail in one way or another. Even the party man, Inspector Escherich, who heads up the investigation elicits a modicum of sympathy and certainly out interest in his dogged pursuit of the 'Hobgoblin'. His map of the city gradually fills with the pins that mark the locations where postcards have been dropped and he works to pinpoint the location where his man must live and work. It becomes an obsession, one that will lead him use even a suspect he knows has nothing to do with the crime for his own ends, providing the book with one of its more thriller-like moments.

Despite this close focus on some very specific characters there is the odd moment when Fallada lifts our heads to see a wider picture. In contrast to the Quangel's lost son we see another mother mourning the fact that her own son has allegedly become a notoriously violent Nazi thug and we suddenly have a vision of the atrocities we now know to have been committed (an image echoed later in the book when a pile of discarded corpses is made personal with a few small, specific details. The factory at which Otto is foreman acts as a neat illustration of the changing fortunes of German society. After its initial change from fine woodworking to the manufacture of bomb crates we then see a further change and get a sense of the changing fortunes of the Nazi war machine as it is enlisted in the construction of cheap coffins, vast numbers made each day, the only question being whether they're destined for the front or somewhere closer to home.

Otto's plan of resistance offers him no clue as to whether it is having any effect, even whilst it carries the danger of ending his life, and one question asked is what the point can be of resistance in the face of such danger. Fallada makes the threat of violence and death incredibly real and as his characters are forced into further privations and that iron fist begins to close we are reminded of the value of opposition, however futile it may feel, and also, in an examination of one of the book's major themes, the nature of being alone, we realise that Fallada has brought together his cast of disparate characters and united them in their common desire.

'Well, it will have helped us to feel that we have behaved decently till the end. And much more, it will have helped people everywhere, who will be saved for the righteous few among them, as it says in the Bible. Of course, Quangel, it would have been a thousand times better if we'd had someone who could have told us, such and such is what you have to do; our plan is this and this. But if there had been such a man in Germany, then Hitler would never have come to power in 1933. As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that does not mean that we are alone, Quangel, or that our deaths will be in vain. Nothing in this world is done in vain, and since we are fighting for justice against brutality, we are bound to prevail in the end...Would you rather live for an unjust cause than die for a just one? There is no choice - not for you, nor for me either. It's because we are as we are that we have to go this way.'


Ronak M Soni 14 June 2010 at 09:16  

You know, if all readers were like me, the name Michael Hofmann itself would have made it a bestseller. I'm guessing that that was the initial kick-off; practically everyone who's come across German in translation tends to be all praise for Hofmann.
Most English writers can't write as well as he wrote Herta Muller's The Land of Green Plums (reviewed by me here).
I honestly think it was an amazing achievement turning a language like German into the tender voice that is in that book.

William Rycroft 14 June 2010 at 12:28  

I'm a big fan of Hofmann too, Ronak, although he did crucify that Zweig memoir in the London Review of Books rather unnecessarily (you may remember, having commented on my initial review). If you haven't already read it, I'd heartily recommend his translation of The Seventh Well by Fred Wander (review here)

Ronak M Soni 14 June 2010 at 16:19  

Yeah, I'm sorry for being so rude back then.
Also, I just saw that you have seven posts on 2666.

Many great artists are 'holes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruEaANXuFbc

Btw, if you read the LRB, do you have any idea how the writers fill over two thousand words? I can see the word counts but can't access the articles themselves.
My basic question is: is it by in-depth analysis or over-zealous plot summarisation?

William Rycroft 15 June 2010 at 00:53  

The LRB is great for many reasons but one of them is the fact that the book reviews there are more like essays than reviews. Without feeling the pressure of time like most other print media the LRB reviews can appear a few weeks or even months after a book has been published. This longer perspective and the way that each piece will take a wider look at the work of that author (or the writings of others that have a relevance to the book being reviewed) means that they are far more satisfying than a standard review in the paper.

The LRB also has articles about current events and contemporary issues making it a journal which goes far beyond reviews of fiction and non-fiction.
(They also have a lovely bookshop staffed by people who actually know what they're talking about!)

Tom C 18 June 2010 at 16:29  

I very much enjoyed this book, and also Little Man What Now. What a shame he wasn't able to write more after the war. I enjoyed reading your review which picks out aspects I had forgotten. I have just read Michael Hoffman's translation of The Inheritance.

William Rycroft 19 June 2010 at 00:39  

Thanks Tom, I'll take a look at you Inheritance review as it was a book I was tempted by. Hofmann, as Ronak pointed out, is a name that is enough to recommend a book, making him almost unique amongst translators (joined perhaps by Anthea Bell)

kimbofo 19 June 2010 at 23:14  

I found this book a bit of a slog. I had such high expectations, because I'd only ever heard great things about it. As you point out, it's far from a polished novel, which isn't surprising given the very short time scale in which it was written. I just found it way too meandering and lacking in focus. Which is a shame, because there's such a fantastic story here dying to get out. I actually enjoyed the reading about the real life case added at the back of the novel more than the novel itself.

William Rycroft 20 June 2010 at 00:45  

It certainly was a bit of a slog at times kimbofo, but I found myself warming to the task as the book progressed. That documentary evidence at the back of the new paperback is great isn't it. To be able to see some of the actual postcards and transcripts made the import of the novel really hit home for me.

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