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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yet another fascinating perspective from WWII; this time it comes in the form of a novel based on an actual couple who resist the Nazis in their own, almost monumentally pathetic, way: they write little anti-Nazi postcards and leave them in the stairwells of buildings, “postcards that no one read, that no one wanted to read, that plunged everyone who found them into embarrassment or dread.” The fact that the couple got away with their petty rebellion for so long indicates that it wasn’t just a simple form of suicide on their part; they thought that they were actually harming the Nazi state.

And yet this absurdly miniscule bit or disobedience was enough to throw the Gestapo in a paroxysm of paranoia. Imagine if the Nazis had been faced with a direct slap to the face of their legitimacy. Imagine if someone had stood up in that Munich beer hall and screamed out, “Look at the ridiculous moustache on that stupid little creep.” Christ, the game might have been up before it even got off the ground. But of course that didn’t happen and soon enough they had created such a level of terror and mistrust among the German people that just about everyone was paralyzed, unable to act out even the most basic of human decencies.

Even such a futile and desperately ineffective act of defiance as this was punishable by death in the insane and paranoid world of Nazi Germany. The novel describes brilliantly the level of fear that existed at all levels of that society. The only people who weren’t afraid were completely psychotic. The old couple wasn’t acting out of heroism; it was simply a desperate attempt to hang on to at least a shred of humanity.

The story is sort of like that parable of a hurricane beginning with the flapping of the wings of a butterfly. The postcards didn’t have the effect the couple imagined, that of a wider rebellion among the German people, but the novel describes how many of the cards brought great hardship upon people and further inflamed the terror in which most citizens were practically drowning.

The translation of this book is a bit of a botched job that, at times, made it difficult to follow the thread of the story. It was full of bizarre words and expressions. I have an easier time reading books in Spanish or French. It certainly deserves a better English interpretation. At the very least the translation needs to be modernized as there are a lot of silly words that are no longer in the English lexicon (and some that were perhaps never a part of the language).

Poppet? Gawp? Crook? Scarper? Porkies? Argy-bargy? Sozzled?

P.S. This is the first book that I have read in English in well over a year. I found it totally by accident at a place here in Valencia that sells books for .50€ on Thursdays (this place is a secret and even a Gestapo interrogation couldn’t beat it out of me). I had never heard of the book or the author before but the blurb on the back cover was enough to separate me from my half a euro. It turns out this was a tremendous bit of luck for me, a diamond in the rough.


  1. I agree. Read this last year or in 2010 and found it to be terrifying, gripping and excellent.

    Don't agree about the translation. I've heard that the German in the original text is... mediocre and also uses a Berlin dialect that's perhaps non-standard. I found it pretty easy to follow.

  2. The book is a masterpiece and one of the best novels about WWII I have ever read, possible the best. At the very least the translation needs to be modernized as there are a lot of silly words that are no longer in the English lexicon (and some that were perhaps never a part of the language).

    poppet? Gawp? Crook? Scarper? Porkies? Argy-bargy? Sozzled?

  3. OK. A British-English translation, then. I'm comfortable with all those words but I agree that for a more general audience, they definitely shouldn't be used.

  4. I purchased this book some time ago, also taken by the blurb on the cover, but alas I haven't gotten around to reading it yet. Thanks for reminding me, I noticed it on the shelf just last week, and now it's time to read.


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