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Small-town politics at a time of crisis,
This review is from: A Small Circus (Penguin Hardback Classics) (Hardcover)
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The time is 1929, when the Weimar Republic is being steadily weakened by conflicts between the forces of democracy, and the anti-democratic forces of both the left and the right, which will eventually lead to victory for the latter and the triumph of National Socialism and Hitler. The novel parallels this disintegration by events played out in Altholm, a small (fictitious) provincial town in Germany. There are many forces at work: the left-wing Mayor, who is the leading politician, sometimes out of step with the views of his `sponsors', the Social Democratic Party; local businessmen, keen to keep trade flowing; the police and militia; newspapers with both strong right and left wing views, desperate to keep their circulation figures up; and a farmers' organization with its own newspaper based in a neighbouring town. (There is a useful list at the start of the book to keep track of the numerous characters.) The novel is about how these political and social forces are unable to co-operate to solve a relatively simple problem, and as a result the town descends into mutual recrimination and even violence. (There are two bombings, an attempted assassination and a murder, although this book is not a thriller in the conventional sense.) Not surprisingly, the story is a complex one, with many (possibly a few too many) subplots.
The story starts with the attempt by two tax inspectors to sequester two cows from a farm in lieu of non-payment of taxes by the farmer. But the farmers in the district fight back by blocking the roads out of the area with burning hay, and the inspectors and officialdom are humiliated. A reporter for a local paper, The Chronicle, by chance photographs this act of defiance, and sees the opportunity to make some money by selling the photos. Needless to say, things do not go as planned and events get out of his control. When a farmers' protest march, led by a mysterious out-of-town agent provocateur, is violently suppressed by the militia, the farmers retaliate with a boycott of Altholm. The rest of the book is mainly about the attempts to achieve reconciliation between `town and country', but despite both sides suffering from the boycott, they are very unwilling to overcome their differences. It culminates in a long account of the trial of some farmers who are accused of violent behaviour towards the police during the march. At the end, both the Mayor and the editor of the Chronicle are forced to resign and leave town. The story ends bleakly when the District President (one layer above the Mayor) intervenes and uses the militia to enforce a ban on a march by the farmers to celebrate a reconciliation agreement. We know his action is likely to lead of the collapse of that agreement, yet another round of conflict, and a further twist in the downward spiral.
Some minor criticism: parts of the book are a little too long, particularly the section on the trial; always addressing people by their full titles is a bit wearying, but that is the Germanic style; the translation sometimes results in some curious English. I have also read `Alone in Berlin' by Fallada. Both are very well written; of the two I prefer the latter. But `A Small Circus' is still a very good read. Depressing it may be, but there is also humor, and it is an excellent portrait of small-town life and its petty animosities at a critical time for Germany.