Book Review: Alone in Berlin (Hans Fallada)

Despite the desperate setting that is the German capital city at the height of Second World War fear, persecution and crippling paranoia, Hans Fallada’s novel is a work threaded through with resilience and righteous fortitude in the face of futile resistance to the Nazi regime. Editorial notes on the Penguin Classics edition shed historical light on the reality of the time in which the book was written (shortly after Hitler’s defeat), and so it is that we might see with even more clarity the shimmer of a future of Soviet hope in its intermittent agricultural analogies and in its final scene. Fallada, we’re informed, had to juggle his writerly needs with those of the dominant social conditions.

Alone in Berlin (Penguin Classics, 2009, translated from the original German by Michael Hofmann; originally published as Jeder stirbt für sich allein, trans. Everyone dies alone, 1947) was written in just twenty four days in late 1946. Given that the copy under review is almost 570 pages in length, this was an undertaking of some significance on Fallada’s part. Commissioned to be written and finished earlier that year, but the author not returning to his original notes until a few months before his death in early 1947, Alone in Berlin is the fictionalised story of the real life Otto and Elise Hampel: two working class, poorly educated people who took a stand, in their own small way, against the regime by writing anti-Nazi postcards (a treasonable offence at that time, punishable by death) following the loss of a family member in the war effort. The Hampels become the fictional Otto and Anna Quangel, who lose their son in the defeat of the French in 1940. Otto Quangel, a quiet, unobtrusive carpenter, working now as a foreman in a factory requisitioned for churning out bomb crates, and later coffins, for the war machine, reacts to his wife’s grief at news of the loss of their son by insisting on his small but drawn out stand, after much consideration. Anna Quangel had told her husband that ‘his Führer’ had killed their son, and so this sets into motion Otto’s actions of extreme jeopardy, from which there is no return and only one possible outcome.

Fallada (real name Rudolf Ditzen, having chosen his pseudonym from a combination of Brothers Grimm tales) slowly unfolds the futile scheme, bringing in a variety of characters along the way, most of whom exhibit extreme caution, paranoia, anxiety and fear, constantly trying to be careful about loose talk, mistrusting neighbours, trying to survive. Frau Rosenthal is an elderly Jewess who lives upstairs from the Quangels and who suffers from the persecution of the Persickes downstairs (Party members, the sons in the SS, all reaping for themselves what the war and their contacts will let them take); a retired judge also lives in the block and offers some salvation, though he too must take great care; Enno Kluge and Emil Borkhausen are low-life, petty criminals, equally as caught up in the whims and severities of the Gestapo machinations; Trudel Baumann is the girlfriend of the fallen son of the Quangels, naively engaged as she is in a low-level and inactive resistance cell. Eva Kluge, the estranged wife of the low-life Enno, resigns her position in the Party, at great potential cost, but she is released from the glare of any retribution, becoming the catalyst for redemptive hope. Others come and go: most characters fare poorly, as might be expected. Within this construct, Fallada details some machinations of the SA (Sturmabteilung, Storm Troopers, the paramilitary also known as Brownshirts), the SS (Schutzstaffel, Hitler’s guard), and the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, the Secret Police). The hunt for the postcard writer is taken up, initially, by Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo.

Escherich is meticulous but his investigation is too long-winded for his superior, Obergruppenführer Prall of the SS. Caught by his own nefarious deed of framing Enno Kluge as the postcard writer, obtaining a false confession, and then letting him go again because he knows that Kluge is not his man, Escherich is forced by Prall to act, or to suffer consequences: Escherich had sought to assuage the attentions of his superior but the latter is a blunt instrument. Prall’s mistreatment of Escherich has the consequence of bringing in Inspector Zott to take on the case. Zott is, however, blinded by his own arrogance and fails to see that Quangel is his man, even when the facts are becoming relatively clear. Later, much later, one Inspector Laub, of the Gestapo, exacts his tortures and it is he who is the cruellest on his victims.

There is much more that can be written by way of a précis but this would rather spoil the read. That said, as has been stated previously, there is only one outcome for the Quangels, which they themselves know from the outset of their resistance, and despite a flurry of hope for them, we know too, deep down, that this is the case. Relatively early on in the work, Fallada writes:

Then he [Otto] picked up the pen, and said softly but clearly, ‘The first sentence of our first card will read: ‘Mother! The Führer has murdered my son.’’

Once again, she [Anna] shivered. There was something so bleak, so gloomy, so determined in the words Otto had just spoken. At that instant she grasped that this very first sentence was Otto’s absolute and irrevocable declaration of war, and also what that meant: war between, on the one side, the two of them, poor, small, insignificant workers who could be extinguished for just a word or two, and on the other, the Führer, the Party, the whole apparatus in all its power and glory, with three-fourths or even four-fifths of the German people behind it. And the two of them in this little room in Jablonski Strasse!

Later, much later, Trudel Baumann, now Hergesell, is assertive with her new husband, Karl, also once of the small but now disbanded resistance cell:

‘But what can we do, Trudel? Nothing! Think of all the power Hitler has, and the two of us are nothing at all! There’s nothing we can do!’

‘If everyone thought like that, then Hitler would stay in power for ever. Someone somewhere has to make a start.’

The resistance is, on one level, futile of course. Escherich announces that the vast majority of the postcards that Quangel has set down in the city have, almost as soon as they’ve been ‘dropped’, been reported to the Gestapo out of fear. Quangel’s hope that the postcards be subversively passed along are forlorn. On another level though, and following Trudel’s and ultimately the Quangels’ logic (Otto’s wife also having agreed to the production of the ‘offences’), a stand must be taken if, and ultimately because, it is the right thing to do. The natural progression of such thinking leads Fallada back to Eva Kluge, the mother archetype, the city-dweller who seeks a quieter life in the country, the literal and figurative baptiser and sower of fields. Eva Kluge takes in an escapee of the city, a teenager, the hope of the future, redemption.

Despite the depth of desperation inherent in the fiction, in the real life basis of the story of the Hampels, and in the real life affairs of the author at the time of writing, Alone in Berlin does find itself beset with some faults. On discovering that the whole text was written in somewhat of a creative flurry, in twenty fours days, and the editing finished just one month later, some degree of context then is provided for occasional one-dimensional characterisations, some fairly shoddy use of dialogue (perhaps, generously, we might prefer to read this in terms of colloquial authenticity), and the occasional but distracting switches between past and present tenses. Obergruppenführer Prall, for example, is portrayed as cardboard thin in his physical and psychological attacks on Inspector Escherich and in his alcoholic debauchery. That said, given that the writing was completed so soon after the downfall of the Nazi regime, Fallada having lived through this at great peril to himself as an author, and perhaps wishing to ingratiate himself with the new powers in his locale, namely the Soviets, a one-dimensional, stereotypical and almost satirical swipe at the SS might very well have been the order of the day. With regards to colloquial dialogue (be it the fault of the original or the translation, as ever with the reading of such works) conversation including such as the word ‘Oodles’, spoken by the Gestapo, strikes the reader as somewhat less than authentic. Plenty of other dialogue is presented as rendering various low-life characters as if they were the German equivalents of 1940s Londoners in chirpy, war time stereotypical patter. An attempt at earthy, gritty realism, no doubt, descends into distraction: the comedic without the comedy. The modern reader remains, alas, ill-informed as to the truth of the matter.

Ultimately, however, Alone in Berlin is a read that must be committed to. That we might become ever more desensitised to the atrocities inflicted in Europe some eighty years ago now grows with each passing year: atrocities felt not only by the foreign enemies of Hitler but by Germany too. Fallada has succeeded in drawing the reader’s attention to a time which very few now can either remember or appreciate. We take for granted all our own resistances to power abuse, but we don’t take up our causes with such jeopardy as the real life Hampels did or their fictionalised versions, the Quangels.


Book Review: The Vegetarian (Han Kang)

Despite the inner cover blurb declaring that the central character of The Vegetarian, Yeong-hye, ‘spirals further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison . . . becoming — impossibly, ecstatically — a tree’, these words are not the precursor to some magical realist swirl, or some such similar expectation; rather, Han’s work is a depiction of a slow deterioration in mental health, brought on by Yeong-hye’s history of abuse and disregard. Slowly, as she disintegrates, do we collect and collate the pieces (referred to below).

Written in three acts and from the perspectives of three family members in a stretched out chronological order of events, The Vegetarian (Portobello Books, 2015, translated from the original Korean by Deborah Smith) was brought together as a novel from its separate connected stories. In the first, Yeong-hye’s husband (referred to later only as Mr Cheong) narrates his thoughts, feelings and actions regarding his wife’s sudden decision not to eat meat. There is a residual historical-cultural undertone in this, we suspect, and in the manner by which Cheong treats his wife in general.

In the second act, the focus switches to Yeong-hye’s video-artist brother-in-law who, when he hears of Yeong-hye’s ‘Mongolian mark’ above her buttocks, becomes both sexually and artistically excited. The sentiments blur as he seeks to paint her naked body in flowers and then film her, though his sexual intent flows through the process, the combination of which all interlinks with Yeong-hye’s assertion of eschewing all contact with meat, embracing the biota. Her brother-in-law abuses her naïve trust, though it isn’t the first of her abuses. In the first act, Mr Cheong relates the incident in which, at a family gathering, Yeong-hye’s father (a strict, former Vietnam War soldier) hits her for refusing to eat meat. She subsequently cuts herself with a knife so severely that it warrants a hurried visit to the hospital. Her father’s actions here are, also, not her first abuse.

In the third act, we discover that Yeong-hye’s father has been physically abusing her in childhood. Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, is the writing perspective of that third act. Han describes her visit to the psychiatric hospital, in the mountains outside Seoul, where Yeong-hye is obliged to reside. In-hye visits after Yeong-hye goes missing from the otherwise secure unit, later to be located alone in the hills. Yeong-hye is, by this stage, refusing to eat anything at all and her weight has dropped dramatically. She is largely catatonic, though consciously focusing on other things, we’re told. She has developed an association with the trees and wishes to be like them. This is not, however, a tale of turning into a tree.

Han’s writing is, at times, bold in its beauty of scarce description (the almost filmic descriptions of the hospital surrounds, for example) and she has a nuanced touch in the art of how things feel. She slips easily between characters, appearing to give them centre stage, yet only later does the reader comprehend the more subtle rendering of how Yeong-hye is actually, truly, at the centre of it all. She is the central character, that much is clear, and yet all the words about her are delivered a little more removed. There is a slight confusion in character names (Yeong-hye, In-hye, their brother Yeong-ho) insofar as remembering who is who for the reader unfamiliar with such similar-sounding names, but this is a minor quibble. That Han also chooses to name other passing characters as simply P., M. and J. is a curiosity which might, with positive regard, be treated as an idiosyncrasy, or with converse regard, as an irritation. Han’s choice of having some of her characters directly refer to one another, such as in telephone conversations, as Sister-in-law, or Sister, rather than by their names is, in the assumption, a cultural reference, though without full certainty.

Deborah Smith’s translation does sometimes offer up an oddness of word use (e.g. ‘pell-mell’, ‘falteringly’ or ‘confusedly’) and the final result is a mix of predominantly British English but with a scattering of American English spellings (‘favour’, ‘colour’, ‘theatre’, and then ‘realize’). This aside, as is the perennial perplexity of the regular reader of variety, the monolingual can never really know the truth of the form of a written work in its original language. As such, these critiques of the translator’s work are minor and presented more in the manner of observation.

In the final reckoning, Han Kang’s novel reflects a languid undertow of background subtleties because, ultimately, what isn’t so forcefully said is comprehended as being a part of the whole. That she chooses to slowly unfold the background of Yeong-hye’s life is testament to Han’s writing skill. She infuses her characters with introspections that fold around themselves but which don’t stultify too greatly the external actions of the characters or the descriptions of the scenes. Those characters are, initially, difficult to comprehend — not because of a complexity of writing but because Han paints them carefully but slightly. Mr Cheong’s first person attempt to extract some form of sympathy for the predicament of his unreasonable wife falls on deaf reader’s ears, but he isn’t someone we find we need to later concern ourselves with; Yeong-hye takes time to try to understand, insofar as her motivations and actions, or rather, her inactions, are concerned.

The Vegetarian earned Han Kang the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. Whilst her writing style is accomplished and the content of her pages here is both carefully arranged and streaked with other depths and subtleties, there is a lingering dissatisfaction in the manner of its denouement. In an ambulance, In-hye whispers to Yeong-hye that: ‘Perhaps this is all a dream.’ Reviews here are written before any others are read, and this applies to praise by award-givers; however, the discrepancy persists in what the ordinary reader might require and what the literary establishment decrees as the most remarkable of its shortlist. The Vegetarian is entirely readable and thought-provoking but it isn’t the ‘bracing, visceral, system-shocking’ breathlessness as announced by its blurb. We should take care in discarding such hyperbole, and we should not be swayed by prize short listing cover addenda.

Simply, The Vegetarian is an interlinked three-act collection around the theme of mental deterioration, streaked with culturally specific, perhaps global, reference to gender relations, and the affects and effects of abuses: the author handles her work mostly with care and sometimes with the reality of flesh and blood.