I persuaded a friend to read the magnificent ‘All the Light we Cannot See.’ In return I was given a dog-eared copy of ‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada. I was told it was similar. I disagree. It has common themes, but its a different book. It’s not easy reading.
I dived straight into it without dipping into the cover notes, author’s bio, or foreword. An enthusiastic recommendation and an obviously well-worn copy suggested it would be a good read. After twenty pages I was on the brink of abandoning it. I found the tone and dialogue and delivery odd at best, amateurish at worst. Only after discovering that this book was a translated from a German novel written within a few years of the end of the war, by an author who spent most of his life in prison or in psychiatric care did it became a powerful telling of a compelling story with a writing style that now made perfect sense.
The novel is based on true events, and describes the entirely futile rebellion of Otto and his wife Anna against the impersonal evils of the Nazi regime, the adversities of war, the hardships which conflict brings, and the ultimate cost of their personal defiance.
There is nothing cheerful about this story, nothing uplifting, nothing inspiring. The events play out with occasional moments of drama, but working wearily to an inevitable conclusion as the investigation into Otto and Anna’s activities grinds on, spanning weeks, then months, then years. The author teases us with the possibility that they will live to see the the end of the war, the fall of the regime, that their dissent will go unpunished, although from the outset the characters are resigned to their eventual fate.
The conclusion of the novel is a bleak portrayal of corrupt justice, of a machinery of state not content with a confession and conviction, but one which also has to humiliate and degrade. Innocent friends and family are Also drawn in, interrogated, tortured, forced to incriminate one another, and condemned by tenuous association.
In the end Hans Fallada portrays the victims as the victors. He tempers the agony of their imprisonment and eventual execution with a portrait of their purity, their decency, their moral superiority over the Nazi regime. He suggests that their inconsequential rebellion is not in vain, that the refusal to be corrupted is in itself the worthwhile achievement. The portrayal of their final days seems hopelessly naive, but is perhaps a necessary conclusion for this persecuted author.
Alone in Berlin’ is not an easy read, but there are characters, scenes, and themes in this book that will stick with me and be stirred up, will rise to the surface as I read, and inform my thinking as I write. Its not a book I’d recommend to anyone who reads purely for pleasure. To those who write however, it may prove to be a worthwhile and rewarding challenge.