Being in Berlin, I could hardly escape Hans Fallada’s Every man dies alone / Alone in Berlin (in international bookshops, or its original counterpart in the German ones) even in the “classier” tourist shops that have some pretence of attracting the “trying to grasp a bit of Berlin history while I’m here” tourists it was omnipresent.
Funnily enough, it is considered a rather old classic (both the book and the movie) in Germany and Switzerland (it was translated in French in the 60’s, making us strange translating pioneers a mere…20 years after the book was first published in Eastern Germany), but since it has recently been translated into English, it is now considered as “rediscovered” (and even advertised as such in German Bookshops, which I find exceedingly strange). Anyhow, I wanted to read or rather listen to some German while cycling through the city, so I found the German audiobook for it. (Which I would only suggest doing if your grasp of German is quite good, as there are a lot of Berlin dialect in it, which is rather mumbled than spoken, as true Berlinerisch is).
The story, based more or less on a Berlin couple who resisted against the Nazi dictatorship by leaving postcards all around Berlin, opens in a rather large view of working-class Berlin in 1940 – a grim time amongst grim times, after the invasion of France, where news of what was supposed to be a “Blitzkrieg” doesn’t seem to end, and depicts a few scenes of the daily miseries of people living in a Berlin neighbourhood. Progressively, it zooms in to focus on Otto and Anna Quangel, an ordinary couple, not much interested in politics, who, after receiving the news of their only son’s death at the front, decide that resistance, even when futile, even when doomed to end in an arrest and probably death, is the only answer. As Fallada (and Otto) says: “It doesn’t matter if one man fights or ten thousand; if the one man sees he has no option but to fight, then he will fight, whether he has others on his side or not.”
They start writing postcards denouncing the Hitlerian atrocities and the pointlessness of war. And all the consequences of those postcards not all anticipated by the Quangels – show the complexity of Humans at such times, as they sometimes go on creating more chains of arrests and tortures to the ones who find them.
The vast array of characters encountered – from the simple workers to the Nazi dignitaries – escapes stereotyping probably because of their simplicity, paradoxically, and by that same simplicity that underlines every extraordinary act of courage they are very touching.
There is no real suspense, the book in fact approaches an inevitable conclusion with an ever growing tension: you know what will happen, since all of the characters’ choices are pushed by an ineffability, a need to act whether it is out of conviction, out of fear, obedience or just out of too many tragedies endured, but still you hold your breath and look at destruction enfolding in rippling waves. In that, it is a very strong book – Again, not a particularly easy one, I’ll try to make an effort to read some light hearted fiction those next weeks. And while the term “rediscovered masterpiece” is probably a rather exaggerated marketing stunt for a book that wasn’t ever forgotten, it is a powerful book and deserves to be read, in any language and at any time.