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Saturday, 8 January 2011

Book Review: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

This isn't a book to read if violence and suffering upsets you. However, I think the title gives a good enough inkling of that.

The essence of the tale is based on the true story of a man and wife, named in the book as Otto and Anna Quangel, who dropped numerous postcards over a two year period during WWII criticising Hitler and the war. Fallada weaves a web of auxiliary characters around the protagonists, creating in the process a Berlin that feels alive to the reader.

Many characters pass through the pages, but most of them are recognisable because they want something. The elderly Jewess, Frau Rosenthal, wants her husband back and, as a secondary concern, she wants to live. Enno Kluge, an ill-fated womaniser, wants to gamble through his days and sleep with various women at night. Judge Fromm, by far the most mysterious character of the novel, wants to help where he can but without opening himself up to unnecessary danger. And what do the Quangels want? Simply put, they want Germans to think. They write the postcards with the belief that people will read them, pass them along to their friends, and generally begin to question what they are being told.

It is down to the Gestapo to stop the Quangels. Inspector Escherich, however, isn't depicted as unquestionable villain. During the book he is explored as much as the Quangels are, and unlike several other characters, I don't think the reader is expected to explicitly hate him. Fallada seems committed to showing all sides and all reasons, and I think he succeeds.

The power of the novel lies in the use of detail where necessary and imagination where appropriate. Though there is plenty of violence within the book, more often than not the moments which we don't see are the more terrifying ones. While Fallada never shies away from describing a scene in all its gruesome detail, he doesn't use blood and horror for sensationalism. It would be very easy to fall into that trap but he avoids it skilfully.

The translation of this edition was by Michael Hofmann. In most cases it is a very readable translation. Occasionally, words jar but all novels do that at points whether they're translations or not. There are supplementary materials at the back, including mugshots of the real Otto and Anna in addition to an afterword by Geoff Wilkes.

I don't think I can pick up on anything that made me unhappy with the book as a whole. It is a difficult read and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who believes the past is best left there. I guarantee the novel will stay with you long after you've finished reading.

Alone in Berlin is available to buy here.

Guardian review of the book.

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