Hans Fallada, née Rudolph Ditzen, led a tumultuous, short life, producing several great works even under the crushing hand of the Nazi Regime. Fallada’s own life, itself worthy of several novels, was plagued by drugs, alcohol, stints in sanatoriums, and most importantly, artistic integrity as a writer. At eighteen, he entered into a suicide pact with his friend while they were at college. Disguised as a duel, it passed miserably with Fallada killing his friend and shooting himself in the chest, an event that he survived. This suicide pact resulted from their growing attraction to one another and mutual desire to avoid besmirching their family’s names. He dropped out of college and began a career path working in agriculture. As he worked on farms, Fallada continued to write and depend heavily on drugs. He managed to publish two novels to no great acclaim. After two separate prison terms for embezzling from his employers, he landed a clerk position with his publisher and, after a disastrous financial time, is asked to reduce his salary. Fallada declined, instead asking to have his advance parsed out in five installments during which time he penned the bestseller Little Man, What Now? This success saved not only Fallada, but also the publishing house itself from financial ruin. Fallada attempted to buy a house in the environs of the city, but the owner accused him of being an anti-Nazi conspirator. Through his new connections, he escaped punishment yet decided to remain in Germany. The ensuing years consisted of periods of drying up, stays in psychiatric hospitals, novels that contained no political content, and a tenuous relationship with the Nazi regime. The Nazis censored and promoted his work with equal fervor and their typical unpredictability. Upon release from a Nazi insane asylum he was confined to during the end of the war, a friend gave him a Gestapo file of a couple that resisted the Nazis by writing postcards filled with anti-Nazi sentiment and dropping them anonymously at various locations throughout Berlin. At first this didn’t strike Fallada as all that interesting, although after being urged by friends to write another novel with a political bent, he penned Every Man Dies Alone in 24 days. Fallada died days before its publication in 1947.
When entering into any type of discussion about Every Man Dies Alone, it is necessary to outline Fallada’s personal and historical context so that the reader can understand the full impact of this work and why it is so monumental. By no means was Fallada a dissident. Nor was he a supporter. Because he held his artistic journey above all else, he did what he had to do to stay alive and stay in Germany during the reign of the Fürher. Fallada himself might not be considered a hero, but his final novel leaves an indelible impression of how ordinary people resisted a dictatorship of evil through acts of courage that, however meager, would most likely bring them death.
Otto and Anna Quangel, based on the real life couple of Otto and Elise Hampel, are simple people who live in an average apartment building on Jablonski Strasse in Berlin during World War II. They are middle-aged, poor German citizens who aren’t politically involved or astute, and approve of the Nazi regime without the knowledge to know better. But once their son, Ottochen is killed at the front, they begin a three-year campaign of resistance through anti-Nazi propaganda postcards that Otto and Anna drop at apartment and business buildings throughout the city. Each Sunday, Otto painstakingly writes in his childlike hand one postcard to be delivered that week. With each passing week, Otto’s newfound ethics become more dangerous. Each week he evades arrest he is empowered, growing more confident that the Gestapo would never suspect a quiet, older factory supervisor with limited education:
“Some,” Quangel resumes, “will hand the card in right away, to the block warden or the police-anything to be rid of it! But even that doesn’t matter: whether it’s shown to the Party or not, whether to an official or a policeman, they all will read the card, and it will have some effect on them. Even if the only effect is to remind them that there is still resistance out there, that not everyone thinks like the Führer…”
“No,” she says. “Not everyone. Not us.”
“And there will be more of us, Anna. We will make more. We will inspire other people to write their own postcards. In the end, scores of people, hundred, will be sitting down and writing cards like us, we will depose the Führer, end the war…”
He stops, alarmed by his own words, these dreams that so late in life have come to haunt his heart.
The Quangels quietly go about their business making and distributing their anti-regime propaganda while their neighbors and friends slowly become entangled in the small evils that war perpetuates. Even in the Quangels building, paranoia and tension run high. The Party loving Persickes whose alcoholic father is a card-carrying member of the Party live there. But the most menacing threat that he has produced is his son, Baldur Persicke, member of the Hitler Youth with a penchant for power.
There’s also Frau Rosenthal whose husband was taken away to a concentration camp and she is left as an old women to protect herself from the Nazis, especially the Persickes.
There’s the retired Judge who attempts to hide Frau Rosenthal in his apartment after hers is broken into and ransacked.
There’s Emil Borkhausen, the whiny good-for-nothing who lives in the back of the building with a prostitute and her children.
And of course, Ottochen’s girlfriend, Trudel Baumann figures prominently in the story as she later is pulled in for questioning due to her association with the Quangels.
We meet Enno and Eva Kluge, a married couple who no longer love each other or even live together. Enno is a womanizing freeloader and Eva Kluge is a post woman who eventually wants to retire and move to the country, thinking she will be farther away from the Nazis and their impact.
Progressing through the novel, Inspector Escherich, who refers to the postcard dropper as ‘Hobgoblin’, becomes an integral part in the Nazi machine and finding the Quangels.
In fact, the novel contains many “minor characters,” but when dealing in extremes such as life and death, none of these characters are truly minor. Each character’s actions have consequences that lead to the demise of themselves or others. Nothing goes unpunished. That is what is so powerful about this book. It gives us a picture of what life was like day to day for the ordinary people of Berlin. With Fallada, we are not given the war through key players and depictions of historical atrocities; we are given the war as if seen through a peephole with a telescope. The magnification of evil in the mundane is the view Fallada gives us. These are the “little people” striving to make a life as death hovers all around them. Otto himself, working in a factory that makes coffins, can only silently witness the horrors that occur:
But sometimes out of that dullness a terrifying rage would explode like the time a worker had fed his arm into the saw and screamed, “I wish Hitler would drop dead! And he will! Just as I am sawing off my arm!”
They had a job pulling that lunatic out of the machinery, and of course nothing had been heard of him since.
And Fallada makes us see that just because you are in the Party, that doesn’t mean that you are offered protection from threats, death, or punishment. Fear is the basis on which the Gestapo operates and the rules of conduct are arbitrary. Escherich follows the work of the Quangels for two year developing theories and narrowing down where the Hobgoblin might live, what his profile might be. But one day he makes a tiny misstep and he is no different that a Nazi traitor and thrown into prison for his ineptitude:
Every joint hurt him, and then it was out of his clothes and into the striped zebra suit, and the shameless redistribution of his possessions among the SS guards. All amid continual kicks and punches, and threats…
Oh yes, Inspector Escherich had seen it all many times in the past few years, and seen nothing surprising or reprehensible in any of it, because that was how you dealt with criminals. Naturally. But the fact that he, Detective Inspector Escherich, was now ranked among these criminals and stripped of all rights, that was something he couldn’t get into his head. He hadn’t broken the law. All he had done was make the suggestion that a case be passed along, a case on which his superiors had had not one useful idea between them. It would all be cleared up—they would have to get him out. They couldn’t do without him! And until that time, he had to maintain his dignity, show no fear, not even show pain.
The severity of the punishment and treatment one would receive if any official or citizen construed the tiniest slight against Hitler and his regime became part of the collective consciousness. Anything but obedience was not accepted. And what becomes so clear throughout the novel is that Hitler and the SS took on the role of God and doled out death as they saw fit. Death no longer became something far in the future, but lurked steps in front of you or behind you.
Fallada’s narrative tone is not depressive or somber, surprisingly. The novel reads like a thriller with a well-developed detachment that allows the reader moments of reprieve from the subject matter. But Fallada does not shield us from reality or death itself. What he does do is give a courageous and elegant face to the characters that decide to take their own life as an act of freedom and defiance. Although in today’s world, suicide isn’t considered brave, in Every Man Dies Alone we are shown that when one is faced with the inevitability of torture and death at the hands of another, the only way to be in control of your destiny is to stand up to the ignorance of evil with your own freedom and your own life.
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .