100 Books in 2011 review: Alone in Berlin

Book club is off with a bang this year. January’s choice was Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (trans: Micheal Hofmann) and I loved it from the from start to finish.

Otto, an ordinary German living in a shabby apartment block, tries to stay out of trouble under Nazi rule. But when he discovers his only son has been killed fighting at the front he’s shocked into an extraordinary act of resistance, and starts to drop anonymous postcards attacking Hitler across the city. If caught, he will be executed.

Soon this silent campaign comes to the attention of ambitious Gestapo inspector Escherich, and a murderous game of cat-and-mouse begins. Whoever loses, pays with their life.

The opening chapter is one of the most powerful I’ve ever read. I read on the train and I was bawling my eyes out. Michael Hofmann’s translation is perfectly pitched and Alone in Berlin is an easy, fast read. Which may be surprising given the subject matter.

Fallada’s characterisation is exquisite. All of the characters are individuals and they come alive on the page. There are no stereotypes or stock characters here. And each character, regardless of how nice they are, is treated with empathy. Through these people Fallada shows how easy it is for civilization to crumble. The state can encourage the basest behaviour through making difference illegitimate, dissension dangerous and rewarding obedience. Systematic terror makes it hard to be a good person and easy to take advantage of the less fortunate. And it happens slowly, insidiously, until before you know it the world you thought you lived in is gone.

I love moral ambiguity and Alone in Berlin is replete with it. The Quangels made daily acts of resistance that achieved nothing except giving them back their self-worth. And you might say that knowing in your heart that you didn’t completely give in is important, yet Anna and Otto’s actions eventually damage the lives of several of the people around them. Their resistance had a tangible cost and an intangible outcome. Was it really the right thing to do? Should they have done something more? And this isn’t the only time the question of right and wrong is raised with complex, unclear examples. It’s not easy and all the pain of living with your choices is laid bare in this novel.

Alone in Berlin is an excellent example of an author that shows and rarely tells. We know who these people are because of what they say and do, not because the author tells us who they are. And this is a book originally written in 1947 so the omniscient POV is used and on occasions Fallada gives himself permission to use the authorial voice. Another member of the book club (who read the book in German) says that Fallada uses the Dickensian tradition of giving characters names that describe them.

If you like fiction that strips away the vanity of civilization and shows us what we are, what we can be, with brutal, uncompromising truth, then you will love this. For me, this is one of the best books I’ve ever read.

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