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Dark, satirical war-time thriller,
This review is from: Every Man Dies Alone (Hardcover)
Hans Fallada was the nom de plume of one Rudolf Ditzen, a German novelist whose best known work is probably the Great Depression novel, "Little Man, What Now?", written in 1932 which in its day was a great international success, even leading to a Universal Pictures film adaptation in 1934. "Jeder stirbt für sich allein" (published in English translation in the USA as "Every Man Dies Alone" and in the UK as "Alone in Berlin") was Fallada's final novel, extraordinarily written in just 24 days in October and November 1946, being completed but not published by the time of the author's death in February 1947. The book takes as its basis the true war-time story of Otto and Elise Hampel who over a period of three years baffled both the Police and the Gestapo by distributing hundreds of postcards all over Berlin, urging acts of civil disobedience and work-place sabotage. Despite the ineffectiveness of their propaganda campaign -- all but a few of their cards were handed into the authorities within hours -- the couple nevertheless enraged the Gestapo, who became convinced that the cards were the work of a large and well-orchestrated underground conspiracy, rather than just two people working silently and alone.
Having himself lived through the privations of the Nazi years and suffered their strictures at first hand (particularly as he was not exactly in favour with the Party) Fallada writes with a great incisiveness and authority, not only in his portrayal of officials of the state but also in his depiction of the behaviour of everyday people. "Every Man Dies Alone" is in part satirical and in part invective but is never less than a highly humanist examination of the times, as well as an honest and frank exploration of the depths to which many Germans had to lower themselves simply in order to survive. Fallada portrays the Nazi Party bigotry and corruption as absolute, permitting not the smallest spark of human decency to remain unpunished. He points up the way in which those few who daily struggled to maintain even a semblance of humanity were left feeling so very much alone and isolated; a state in which they perforce maintained themselves or else perpetually risked denouncement, to be followed inevitably by interrogation, incarceration and possibly execution. And yet isolated pockets of human decency did abound, albeit working in small and quiet ways to try to derail the Fascist hegemony, however futile and dangerous their gestures might actually be.
"Every Man Dies Alone" is a compelling and totally gripping tale, initially of suspense and later of self-discovery and redemption. Fallada portrays at length the mean and petty lives which the Nazi political system created, as well as the hopelessness experienced by many in war-time Berlin; the author fair revels in the crass incompetences and internal bickerings of the authorities which for so long kept them from tracking down the conspirators. Many of the small details of the book are partly auto-biographical -- particularly many of the internal struggles of its weaker characters, as well as their experiences at the hands of low-level Party officials and rank-and-file fanaticism -- mirroring as they do Fallada's own personal experiences of those years. Many of the characters -- especially those in positions of power -- come across now more as caricatures or as comic cartoon characters more than as real, solid people but this was probably the way they appeared within an entire nation which had collectively been forced to bury not just its sanity but a great portion of its humanity as well.
This English translation is newly prepared by Michael Hofmann and is a joy to read, capturing in highly idiomatic (contemporary) language Fallada's deadpan delivery of events, whether they be of great brutality or simpering banality. Above all, it comes across as fresh and vibrant, accentuating Fallada's wicked black humour perfectly.