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Alone In Berlin
Book Review by Charlotte Bence, March 2009
Hans Fallada, Penguin; £20
If standards on this magazine were not, thankfully, significantly higher, this review would merely be a gushing appeal to all readers to read this book as soon as it comes out, pass it on and tell everyone you know to do the same.
Alone In Berlin is quite simply brilliant. The novel centres on the Quangels, a working class German couple who decide to take a stand against Nazism when their only son is killed fighting at the front, and the consequences their small actions ultimately have.
The most impressive aspect of the novel is the weaving of the horrific with the mundane as people of all political sympathies try to keep some semblance of normality in their lives under Nazism.
This is something Hans Fallada was all too familiar with in his own life, as in September 1935 he was officially declared an "undesirable author" - a decision which was later reversed after the publication of Wolf Among Wolves which Joseph Goebbels read as a sharp criticism of the Weimar Republic. His praise led to Fallada's commission to write the novel Iron Gustav, which became the basis for a state-sponsored film charting the life of a German family.
In 1944, following a row with his ex-wife, Fallada spent time in a psychiatric prison. The time in the mental institution had taken a toll on Fallada, and, deeply depressed by the seemingly impossible task of eradicating the vestiges of fascism that were now so deeply ingrained in society from the Nazi regime, he began taking morphine. The brief remainder of his life was spent in and out of hospitals and wards. He died of a morphine overdose in 1947, just weeks before the publication of Alone In Berlin.
Primo Levi called the novel "the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis", and I would agree. The text has been translated wonderfully from the original German by Michael Hoffmann, and so, whereas a lot of translated novels leave the reader feeling like there is something lost in the process of translation, with Alone In Berlin this is not the case.
The detail and the imagery here are what really bring the novel to life. The language and pace of the novel completely absorb the reader, whether it be the description of an elderly Jewish woman leaping to her death rather than face interrogation by her Hitler Youth neighbours, or the exploration of the SS officer's psyche after his "hobgoblin" has been captured and he has been imprisoned by his own colleagues for his supposed ineptitude.
I wanted to try and avoid gushing praise, and the clichés of book reviews, but I'm afraid it isn't possible. Alone In Berlin really is "unputdownable" and the reader really will "laugh and cry in equal measure". Anyone who considers themselves an anti-fascist should read it urgently.
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