“At least I stayed decent,” he said. “I didn’t participate.”
I started making notes for this review of Alone In Berlin almost before I’d turned the last page of the epilogue. This was back in February. I must have felt like I had a lot to say about it at the time although, now, after the passage of several weeks, I find that my notes don’t really mean much and the review I started to write is nonsense. Oh well. I do remember getting frustrated at my own inability to say what I meant about this book and this probably explains why it all got put on the back burner for so long. It’s particularly embarrassing because it means that this short, obscure blog post took longer to write than the novel itself. Fallada famously wrote Alone In Berlin – 568 pages in my edition – in a measly 24 days. And he was dying at the time.
Fallada was apparently inspired to write his story about a middle-aged German couple who wage a private resistance campaign against the Nazis after being passed a secret Gestapo file on a real dissident couple. In his version of the tale, Anna and Otto Quangel’s eyes are opened to the truth around them when their only son is killed fighting Hitler’s war in Poland. They start writing anti-Nazi slogans on postcards and leaving them in public places across the city in the hope that other Berliners will find them and be encouraged to oppose the regime too. Of course, they know that their postcards may seem paltry and insignificant in the great scheme of things and they’re also painfully aware that discovery will lead to interrogation, torture, imprisonment and probably execution. But they carry on regardless. Anna and Otto are only a part of the story here and I think really the whole point is that while their small acts of resistance don’t encourage much in the way of active disobedience elsewhere they are important and they have far reaching consequences for their loved ones and for those tasked with investigating and punishing them.
It’s the sort of story that’s difficult to put down and I think to a certain degree this might be the case even if it was told by a less competent, more indulgent writer than Fallada. By this I mean that he doesn’t dress up the Quangels, he doesn’t make them nice or their deeds heroic, he doesn’t pretend that their postcards changed much. In fact, there’s nothing exciting here; it’s ordinary and small and utterly, utterly chilling at times. The Quangels’ world is characterised by suspicion, fear of denunciation, cruelty and betrayal even before the thought of civil disobedience enters their minds and Fallada doesn’t hold his punches. He doesn’t hold your hand through the unpleasant bits or offer any glimmers of hope to light the way. No. For me, this made the book almost relentlessly harrowing and I read the whole thing with my heart in my mouth, scared of all the things that I knew could and would go wrong. I know that’s a personal response and other readers might not react in the same way but for me that’s how it was. I confess to finding it emotionally gruelling.
And I don’t mean any of this as a criticism of Fallada or his writing. In fact there isn’t a thing I would change about Alone In Berlin and with hindsight I think his unwillingness to indulge the reader is one of the things I like about it. In the hands of another writer it could become dismal, depressing, trite or mawkish and he avoids all of that spectacularly. It just made me very glad that I wasn’t one of his characters or even one of the people who inspired them. I at least had the power to close the book and walk away from it all.