When I called that Nazi ‘mate’, that did it for them! I wonder what I’m going to do next. Because I will do something, I know. I just don’t yet know what it will be…
Alone in Berlin, by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann (Penguin Classics). I’ll start by saying that this is one of the most perfectly paced books I’ve ever read. For a book with so many key characters, and totaling not far off 600 pages, the story is so carefully structured, revealing little bits and pieces to you as you creep through the text. This is a storyteller who doesn’t show all his cards at once, and despite the book’s dealing with factual events, Fallada manages to keep you in suspense until the very last moment.
Despite your desperate hope for the prevalence of Good against Evil, there is a sense of inevitability that can’t be ignored, and the characters seem almost entirely consumed by it. Even those who try to keep out of trouble are suppressed by their environment, and there is a conscious foreboding that they will be drawn into the conflict no matter what they do.
Otto is the key character, and creator/distributor of the provocative postcards slandering Hitler and his regime. Otto’s words and thoughts, and significance as protagonist draws you to his side, but he is always reminding you that it’s not a question of whether or not he will be caught – it’s a question of when. It’s an entirely trepidatious and vulnerable read – you are scared to keep reading as it always feels as though they will be caught at any minute!
I’m going to stop there before I become so utterly carried away with myself that I reveal the whole thing! At the same time as the book is tense, and at times disturbing and violent, it also has family, loyalty and love at its heart. It exemplifies some of the effects of Nazi Germany on its citizens, and shows to us a fragment of what was: a postcard from history.
I’ll wrap it up here with a short extract from the text. Enjoy!
Quangel asks, ‘Are yours not of an age to go and fight, neighbour?’
Almost offended, Borkhausen says: ‘You know perfectly well, Quangel! But if they all died at once in a bomb blast or whatever, I’d be proud of them. Don’t you believe me Quangel?’
The foreman doesn’t give him an immediate answer, but he thinks, Well, I might not have been a proper father and never loved Otto as I ought to have done – but to you, your kids are just millstone round your neck. I think you’d be glad if a bomb came along and took care of them for you!
Still, he doesn’t say anything to that effect, and Borkhausen already tired of waiting for an answer, says, ‘Just think, Quangel, first Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia and Austria, and now Poland and France – we’re going to be the richest country on earth! What do a couple of hundred thousand dead matter! We’re rich!’
Unusually rapidly, Quangel replies, ‘And what will we do with our wealth? Eat it? Do I sleep better if I’m rich? If I stop going to the factory because of being such a rich man, what will I do all day? No, Borkhausen, I don’t want to be rich, and much less in such a way. Riches like that aren’t worth a single dead body!’
Borkhausen seizes him by the arm; his eyes are flickering, he shakes Quangel, while whispering fervently into his ear, ‘Say, Quangel, how can you talk like that? You know I can get you put in a concentration camp for defeatest muttering like that? What you said is a direct contradiction of what the Fuhrer says himself! Why if I was someone like that, and went and denounced you…’