(I know, I know – I’m so far behind myself blogging-wise but I hope to have caught up by the end of this month.)
Following my brief encounter with Hans Fallada last year, I have been meaning to read one of his longer works. I did not intend it to be Alone In Berlin because I have friends whose brothers were executed by the Nazis and that whole era fills me with dismay. Plus there’s much more to Germany than all that. Still when I saw the unabridged audio in the library I thought that listening to it in 25 minute snatches (the time it takes to drive to the office) would make a painful “read” endurable. It did and it didn’t. I tell you there were times when I parked the car at the end of the journey and had to take a 5-minute breather before venturing forth. Two months later with no written notes or post-it notes marking pertinent passages (a downside of audio books for me) I still find myself pondering its brilliance.
For the benefit of those who haven’t read this yet a quick synopsis. Otto Quangel and his wife, Maria, become disillusioned with their glorious Fuehrer when their only son is killed in France. Otto Quangel decides to resist the regime by writing subversive messages on postcards which he then drops in public buildings. He does not wish to become a leader but he does want to galvanise the German public to resistance. He understands that this action will probably lead to the deaths of both himself and his wife, should they be caught, but he proceeds nonetheless. Suffice to say in this realist novel, his rebellion is an exercise of the utmost futility. Though there’s no way that this little man can defeat the Nazi monster, Fallada’s tense tale didn’t stop me hoping that he could.
Having listened to all 20 hours and 15 minutes of John Telfer’s expressive reading, I could probably write a book as long as the novel itself explaining its merits. I shall contain my enthusiasm and limit myself to 5 main points.
1) The Quangels live in a small block of flats at 55 Jablonski Strasse. The other tenants form a microcosm of German society at that time: corrupt landlord, the Nazi family, a rich Jewess, and a retired judge. The Quangels represent the ordinary joes (or Schmidts). The events in the novel show how no-one came out of the Third Reich unscathed – not even their own supporters.
2) Otto Quangel isn’t your stereotypical hero. He is taciturn and incommunicative, incapable of offering his wife the support she needs in her time of grief. His small act of resistance, while undeniably courageous, is actually counter-intuitive. Ineffective in rousing the intimidated German populace to rebellion but highly effective in engendering terror in those who pick up the cards. Quangel’s campaign is also deadly. It claims the lives of at least 2 innocents. Yet this act of rebellion attracts no criticism from the narrator. It may be a small and seemingly trivial but it is “a seed of decency” in a world that has lost any semblance of such.
3) Escherich – the Gestapo inspector tasked with finding the Hobgoblin (the contemptuous codename for the unknown postcard writer) – isn’t your stereotypical villain. He’s not a thug like his superiors and peers but a consummate detective. The logic with which he conducts the investigation is impeccable. His errors though include over-confidence, arrogance even and a feeling of superiority over his Nazi superiors. And he not above a murder of convenience when his own back is against the wall. His fate is bound up with that of his prey. It is the supreme irony that Escherich provides the only validation of Quangel’s campaign.
4) The intimidation and fear that was prevalent in those times is palpable. Fallada shows how the most innocent of comments or actions can be turned into an excuse for unrelenting Nazi persecution against another. To this day, my heartrate doubles with anxiety at the mention of Trudel Hergezell and is chilled to the core by the thought of Baldur Persicke.
5) Surrounded by all this bleakness, Fallada still manages to inject elements of comedy and hope, incorporating brief moments of comic noir involving the hapless adventures of two small-time crooks an a not incongruous hopeful ending for the younger generation.
It really is an astonishing novel though not quite perfect.
There’s an overload of Nazi thugs (although it can be argued that this too is a realistic portrayal of that time). More importantly the portrait of Anna Quangl is inconsistent. With Otto she is meek and subservient. During her trial, however, there is a sudden spark of spirit and an outburst that doesn’t gel with the character we see in pages previous.
This is where the already eventful plot thickens. The text of this audio book and the current Penguin edition isn’t the novel that Fallada submitted. The original manuscript recently came to light with evidence of heavy editing. According to Fallada’s biographer, Jenny Williams, this editing effectively resulted in the whitewashing of the “good guys”. For instance the whole of chapter 17 had been expunged, in which the Quangls former political affiliations and participation in Nazi Society were less than palatable to the communist East German publishers. Fallada had no input to this as he died in the the year prior to publication. The original unedited text has now been reinstated in German editions, though not yet in the English translation. I look forward to checking out a revised edition as the introduction of further grey areas will add nuance and make a great book even greater!