Midway through Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel Alone in Berlin (US title: Every Man Dies Alone), a character gives up on reading a book. He’s asked if he isn’t enjoying it.
Ach, you know, not really … They’re all such terribly good people, and I get bored. It’s too much like a proper book. Not a book that a man can sink his teeth into. I’m looking for something with a bit more excitement, you know.
How kind of Fallada to incorporate that passage to make it easy for people like me to say: he should have read Alone in Berlin then. Here there is plenty of excitement to sink your teeth into – even though it is very much like a proper book.
And the beauty of it is that most of the characters are not “terribly good people”: and we’re not even talking about the Nazis. Alone in Berlin is “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis” (Primo Levi), but it is its open-eyed realism which makes it shine. The characters are venal, selfish, chaotic, not types but real people. (Indeed, the book is based on true events.) There is the ineffectual and emotionally incontinent Enno Kluge; Emil Borkhausen, whose loyalty lies with the highest bidder; Karl Hergesell, former resistance organiser who gave up for the comforts of a secure home life (“My happiness doesn’t cost anyone else a thing”). Even the heroes of the story, the Quangels, are deluded about the scope of their resistance campaign.
As the book opens, Otto and Anna Quangel, living in an apartment block in Jablonski Strasse, Berlin, in 1940, have just learned that their son has been killed when fighting for Hitler in the war. It’s a merciful release, in a way, from the ever-present fear for him (“After each letter from the front you felt better for a day or two, then you counted back how many days had passed since it was sent, and then your fear began again”). When Anna, distraught, blames Otto – “you and that Führer of yours!” – this sets off an emotional journey in Otto which leads him to undertake a modest but life-threatening resistance campaign across the city. This, incidentally, is where I began to see more sense in the UK cover design, which initially seemed to be a dramatic lapse in the normally good taste of Penguin (if I didn’t know better, I’d swear that was Comic Sans). I still have my doubts, however, about the UK title. On the one hand, aloneness, as discussed below, is a central theme; on the other, the US title, Every Man Dies Alone, is a closer translation of the original German (Jeder stirbt für sich allein) and has a brutal relevance, as a chaplain points out to Otto Quangel when he doubts the value of the resistance.
Of course, it would have been a hundred times better if we’d had someone who could have told us. Such and such is what you have to do; our plan is this and this. But if there had been such a man in Germany, then Hitler would never have come to power in 1933. As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean that we are alone, or that our deaths will be in vain.
In fact the UK title and cover – and quotes on the back, where Alan Furst and Philip Kerr get precedence over Primo Levi – make clear that here, Alone in Berlin is being sold as a thriller. And it is: there is an excellent control of pace (over 570 pages), good and not-so-good guys in all shades of grey, and some genuinely thrilling moments such as the showdown between Escherich and Kluge at the end of part two.
Beyond that, Fallada displays an acute understanding of motivations. When Enno Kluge is being interrogated by a Gestapo man, he is so psychologically beaten by the experience that he offers a false confession as a “favour” – “he was terrified of antagonizing this nice inspector”. The inspector himself, knowing the confession is false, nonetheless comes to believe in Kluge’s guilt because “too many curious coincidences clustered round the fellow.” Fallada efficiently shows that of such illogical (in)humanity are life and death decisions made.
The book is not perfect. Fallada wrote it in less than a month, and it is an astonishing achievement with or without that knowledge. But sometimes his haste shows – tenses change mid-scene with alarming frequency – and too often his thumb is on the scales, with melodramatic chapter endings and authorial intervention. Even translator Michael Hofmann, never knowingly underpraised on this blog, makes a few odd choices, such as using words like “mate” which give the impression that the book has been translated not into English but into British. Curiously, the rough edges seem to enhance rather than detract, neatly meeting the book’s promoted status as an unearthed relic, written on the hoof (Fallada died shortly after completing it, having been incarcerated in a Nazi insane asylum during the war). We should be grateful to have it in translation at last. It’s hard not to see Alone in Berlin becoming a widely read modern classic.
Solitude – being alone, in Berlin or anywhere else – is foremost in the minds of many of the characters. One character longs for it – “perhaps when she’s alone she will amount to more: she’ll have some time to herself, she won’t need to put herself last”, while wondering when facing time alone, “what will I discover about myself that I never knew?” In a Germany “jam-packed with uniforms”, all the resistance volunteers are made to feel alone together. “No amount of reticence could change the fact that every individual German belonged to the generality of Germans and must share in the general destiny of Germany, even as more and more bombs were falling on the just and unjust alike.” The sense of oppression is well done, and all the better for its contemporaneity, which gives it the essence of reportage and the ring of truth. “Danger’s not on the doorstep,” Otto Quangel tells his wife. “Danger is somewhere else, but I can’t think where. We’ll wake up one day and know it was always there, but we never saw it. And then it’ll be too late.”