Friday, August 24, 2012

Alone In Berlin by Hans Fallada

Alone in Berlin begins and ends with a minor character: a woman called Eva Kluge. At the start of the book she is a lonely mother, separated from both her conniving and philandering husband and, more devastatingly, from her morally corrupt Nazi son. She is a postwoman and the delivery she makes on page one connects all the elements in the novel: the retired good-natured judge, the objectionable family of a former publican, a Jewish woman who is probably a widow, although her husband has just disappeared, the family of a man who lives off the earnings of his loose-living wife and, finally and most importantly, the main characters of the novel Otto and Anna Quangel.

The Quangel's letter is black-edged which the postwoman knows can mean only one thing: their only son has fallen at the front.
'...the postie climbs the next flight of stairs and rings the Quangels' bell. She's already holding the letter out, ready to run the second she's handed it over. And she's in luck: it's not the woman who answers the door - she usually likes to exchange a few pleasantries - but the man with the etched, bird-like face, the thin lips, and the cold eyes. He takes the letter from her without a word and pushes the door shut into her face, as if she were a thief, someone you had to be on your guard against.'
Otto Quangel, described so vividly, seems unsympathetic. He is a recalcitrant figure who seems destined to remain a stranger to everyone - his colleagues who have worked alongside him in a factory for years and even his wife of twenty-five years. He is brought alive by the narrative and the reader soon realises the depth of the man who soon becomes set on embarking on a risky protest, and is redeemed in the end by tragedy.

Alone in Berlin gripped me. The lives of the characters are absorbing, sad and tragic. The impression of a place where even the most innocent is in danger of being betrayed makes a febrile setting. Gradually another important character is introduced - Gestapo inspector Escherich - and even he is human. In fact it is the inspector's humanism, brought out by Otto Quangel which for me was the pivotal scene in the book. Like everyone else Escherich is made to suffer, and this suffering pierces his inflated ego and sense of superiority so much that when he encounters Quangel he is vulnerable.

What happens to the Quangel and hi wife is inevitable and yet still holds small twists and surprises. The book finishes with Eva Kluge, or rather the result of Eva Kluge's labours. Like Otto Quangel she finds redemption, and happily she is one of the few characters that survives to enjoy it.

The novel is based on a real story and this, together with a brief synopsis of the life of the author, Hans Fallada, are interesting in their own right.

The book is expertly translated by Michael Hofman and contains valuable footnotes explaining the relevance of some of the terms and references.


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