Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, trans Michael Hofmann
I was put off reading this book for months, anticipating that it would be too difficult, too philosophical, too heavy; also that being 608 pages including appendices it would take too long to read. I was wrong on all accounts.
Alone in Berlin was written in just a few weeks in 1946 by its author, who died shortly afterwards. It chronicles the life of various folk living in Berlin during the horrors of WWII, but concentrating on the Quangel family. The Quangels are a quiet couple. Their son is away at war, Otto is a foreman in a factory, while Anna keeps house. They live in an old apartment block alongside Nazi supporters, an old Jewish widow, a retired judge, and in the basement a drunken spiv called Borkhausen and his prostitute wife.
One day the post brings bad news, their son is dead and the shock is enough to cure Otto of any pro-regime feelings, he wants to do something, although you’d never know from the outside, as he is so taciturn and unemotional. Although he is uneducated, he decides to write anti-Hitler postcards and leave them in buildings around Berlin. At first, he doesn’t want Anna to get involved, but grudgingly he lets her in on his act of rebellion.
What he doesn’t know is that most of the postcards never get to pass on their treasonable messages, they get handed straight in to the Gestapo, where Inspector Escherich is on the case. Thus begins a game of cat and mouse – Escherich has the right ideas, but can’t manage to catch the Hobgoblin, as he calls the postcard writer. They manage to catch the wrong man – Borkhausen’s friend, Enno Kluge – a workshy drunk and gambler, but Escherich knows he’s not the one and despairs of his superiors and predilections for beating up prisoners while drunk. He begins to respect his adversary.
Eventually though Otto makes a mistake, the Quangels are arrested, separated and imprisoned. They are not to meet again until their trial. Their prison experiences make for gruesome reading, as they, and their family and friends are all treated appallingly. The Quangel’s trial is a joke; their sentence is sad and inevitable.
What came over strongly to me was that this was a tale of ordinary people; all have their faults, some many more than others. For all of them, getting through these terrible times by whatever means is their priority. Borkhausen and Kluge try to rob the old widow, but get caught by the Nazi Persickes who then try and do a deal when they see her riches. The old judge offers the widow sanctuary, but she can’t cope with his strict rules for hiding her. Enno’s wife throws him out, again, and he then works his charms on the widowed owner of a pet shop before the police catch up with him. Forgive me for sounding glib, but it is a regular soap opera, complete with end of episode cliff-hangers. In comparison with the Quangels who mostly maintain a calm manner with dignity throughout their ordeals, and the Inspector with (some) principles, the supporting cast are a motley crew.
Fascinating as the view of life under Hitler in wartime Berlin was, these digressions and side-stories, strung out the main tale for me. It could have lost maybe two hundred pages for me and been a much tauter, more thrilling story. So much time was spent with Enno Kluge in particular, that we were in danger or forgetting the real rebels – the Quangels.
The Quangels’ story was in fact based upon real people – Otto and Elise Hampel, and this edition includes examples of the actual postcards they produced along with some of the Gestapo papers from their case. Those and the extensive afterword were as interesting as the novel itself for me. Stylistically, I found it slightly strange that the novel drops in and out so much between present and past tenses; this didn’t make it in any way unreadable, just something that struck me.
In summary, another book that I’m glad to have read – the first book for me written by a German about life in Germany during the war. There’s no doubting the courage of the rebels, both real and fictional, but the novel didn’t quite live up to my expectations. (6.5/10)
Book chosen from a list to review supplied by Amazon Vine.
To buy from Amazon.co.uk, click Alone in Berlin (Penguin Modern Classics) by Hans Fallada