When I first browsed the Penguin Mini Modern Classics List, this one called the loudest. For many reasons: 1) Translated from German 2) I have heard tremendous things about Alone in Berlin and Wolf among Wolves, both of which languish in the TBR, terrifying me with their size (576 and 816 pages respectively). 3) This small volume of two stories, newly translated by Michael Hoffmann, seemed the ideal icebreaker.
The stories are drawn from the dark places of Fallada’s own experience: a downward spiral of addiction, attempted suicide and imprisonment triggered by an untimely adolescent accident. Further details here. Written with clarity and brevity, not a word is wasted and this is a truly compelling read.
The protagonist of the first story is a lover of his drug. While his every waking moment dictated by the need for the next fix, he speaks the words of love of it and to it. With neither sense of denial, nor desire to stop, he embarks on a trip around the pharmacies of Berlin with his fellow junkie and a handful of fake prescriptions. It only takes the invigilance of one chemist and they have scored. Disaster then strikes in an oddly humourous way. It is this that proves to be the catalyst – he switches from morphine – a gentle joy who makes her disciples happy – to cocaine – a red, rending beast, it tortures the body, it makes the world a wild distorted hateful place. It doesn’t take long to turn him into something similar. As he is arrested and led off, the long torture of withdrawal begins.
The protagonist of the second story, Three Years of Life, is disillusioned with his drug of choice even though he consumes a pint of cognac before the first page is through. He is gathering up courage to embezzle his employer of a significant sum of money which he uses to escape to Berlin and go on a bender. Only when he is short of funds, does his turn himself in. There follows a darkly comic, reverse Kafkaesque incident in which he must strive to get arrested. He finally succeeds and is thrown into a cell. There begins the long torture of withdrawal – both for him and for me. Are those bedbugs which plague him in the cell real or a symptom of his withdrawal? Either way the scratches, itches and bites of his paranoia were felt on my skin! Ugh!
I loved the precision and vividness of Fallada’s prose. This bodes well for the future reading of his full length novels.