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Monday, 7 June 2010

Books - Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Star rating - 9/10

I had never heard of this novel until a few weeks ago, but it is taking book lovers by storm across the world. It is not a new book, it was published in 1947, tragically just after the author’s death. But it was translated again into English last year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The events, based on a true story, take place in Berlin under the grip of Nazi rule. One elderly couple, Otto and Anna Quangle, learn of the death of their only son fighting in the German army, and the futility of this ending changes something inside Otto. He starts to resist the Nazi regime in a very low level but profound way. He writes postcards with subversive messages on them, asking people to question what the Nazi’s are doing and what they are telling the people. He leaves them in apartment blocks and offices on stairwells for random strangers to find. He performs this task alone at first, but later his wife Anna finds out and joins him in his mission.

The Gestapo are infuriated by this postcard campaign, which goes on for over two years, and leaves them floundering in the dark looking for the culprit. The novel is a great thriller as the police try to track down who is daring to oppose the Nazi regime in such an infuriating way, and their inept attempts at investigating the crime make both gripping and amusing reading.

What is remarkable for me about this book is that is shows just what a chilling effect the terrifying Nazi dictatorship had on ordinary people, who had a range of reactions to it, from enthusiastic embrace, to indifference, to resistance and defiance. And the patchwork quilt of characters that Fallada weaves into the story is rich and extensive. The tentacles of fear reach into the hearts of families and communities, making people react in gross and frightening ways.

This book exposes what ordinary people suffer under brutal dictatorships, and how their behaviour is warped by their experiences, far more than any historical account could do. It is a page turner of a thriller. It is a history lesson. It is a tragedy.

And Fallada himself was a tragic figure. His real name was Rudolph Ditzen, and he died of a morphine overdose before this book was published, which was something of an accurate reflection of a life plagued as it was by mental illness and addiction. But his gem of a novel captures the terror of what it was for ordinary people to life under the shadow of the Nazis like nothing else has for me. Superb.

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