Alone in Berlin
Review by Amanda Ellison
This month, my Book Club agreed that our next novel for review should be a book set outside of the UK. I toyed with the notion of reviewing Sally Rooney’s Dublin and Sligo based Normal People, having recently read it. Why did I feel like this would be cheating? After all, the Republic of Ireland is not, technically, in the UK - despite its close proximity. My dilemma was resolved when a colleague of mine recommended a book she had just finished: Alone in Berlin. This ignited a dormant memory of returning from Paris – several years ago – on the Eurostar, and lustily coveting this intriguing-looking book perched in the hands of a fellow passenger. The title alone tickled my fancy (it spoke of mystery and intrigue in a foreign setting), compounded by the image of the solitary figure on the cover, receding into the distance and shrouded in the obligatory mist. I made a mental note to put it on my TBR list when I got home. As usual, however, there is always another book pushing its way to the front of the queue, elbowing its way past Alone in Berlin. So it is apposite, I guess, that this opportunity to read it now has presented itself.
On the face of it, this book is right up my street: an evocative European setting; a potent regime during a period in history I find profoundly interesting; a cover hinting at mystery and thrills. I have never been to Berlin. And I’m not sure I want to visit Berlin: I have read so many books based there that I have my own vivid and detailed version of it nestling comfortably in my imagination – to see the real Berlin would perhaps be to involuntarily relive the climactic moment of discovering that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. So settling down to read this book, I was ready to be transported. What is more, perusing reviews of this book led me the conclusion that I was in for a treat. Alone in Berlin is universally adored. Primo Levi declared it ‘the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis’. It was time for me to find out for myself.
This once-banned novel is written by Hans Fallada (the pseudonym of Rudolf Ditzen) and is based on a true story. The tale begins in 1940 and centres around two key protagonists, with a supporting cast of denizens of wartime Berlin, particularly the residents of 55 Jablonski Strasse. It tells the story of Anna and Otto Quangel, who receive the tragic news, early in the book, that their son has been killed during the invasion of France. This harrowing event triggers a ‘silent resistance’ in the form of the couple regularly leaving anti-Nazi handwritten postcards in stairwells and other public places around the city. The postcards contain such messages as ‘Mothers, Hitler will kill your son too’. This very quickly comes to the attention of the authorities, who eventually identify and denounce the Quangels in 1942 and execute them in 1943, on the grounds of treason. I guess what is striking here is that words really do matter. Words are powerful, whether for good or bad.
The novel is narrated in the third person, yet the opening of the final chapter commences with the words: ‘But we don’t want to end the book with death’. Is Fallada perhaps suggesting that the Quangels did not die in vain, that resistance to tyranny – however small – leads to a better and more united (‘we’) future? In the Afterword, Geoff Wilkes suggests that this may well be the case, as suggested through the motif of children. This is exemplified by the mobilisation of the Quangels (who are motivated by their child’s death), Eva Kluge’s exit from the Party upon learning that one of her sons has murdered Jewish children in Poland, and Trude’s decision to shelter a Jewish woman only after she learns of her own pregnancy.
It can’t be denied that the novel’s subject matter is very worthy. I wanted to like it. I expected my reaction to be visceral; I expected the prose to be freighted with emotive detail. But there is a huge problem: the storytelling. Hans Fallada fails – in my opinion – to evoke the atmospherics of the city or the zeitgeist of the period; he fails to create three-dimensional characters; a Kirkus review describes them as ‘archetypal to a fault’ – consequently, the reader can only engage with their plight in a very generalised way. The real problem probably comes down to the fact that Fallada allegedly wrote this - long! – book over twenty-four days. The weighty source material really does merit more respect than that. There is a serious incongruity between the theme and the flat, prosaic style in which the story is told. Alone in Berlin also suffers from comparison: it cannot hold a candle to many other Berlin-based novels: Christopher Isherwood’s sublime Goodbye to Berlin; Anna Funder’s authentic Stasiland; Robert Harris’s gripping, thrilling Fatherland; even Volker Kutscher’s fairly lightweight – but crowd-pleasing – Babylon Berlin. Alone in Berlin reverses the ‘style over substance’ concept.
In short, Alone in Berlin is a story that definitely warrants being told. Just by someone other than its author.