Alone in Berlin

Hans Fallada – have you heard that name before?

* * *

Tucked in a corner of a mall near Heidelberg is a small shop that offers, among other things, a shoe repair service. The man behind the counter is in his work outfit, a red jumper over a blue shirt, and his coarse hands are dirty.  Wife gives him her shoe with a broken heel; come back in two hours, he says. Two hours later, our shopping completed, when we return he is talking to another customer, taking another order – he needs another fifteen minutes.

Fifteen minutes. What do we do? Walk into Media-Markt and browse the DVD collection? Or visit the German bookstore nearby?

The bookstore, like most others in this country, has one shelf marked “ENGLISH BOOKS”.  The collection is predictable – Dan Browns, JK Rowlings, JRR Tolkeins, Paulo Coelhos – but is there a joker in between, something unfamiliar? A title catches my eye: Alone in Berlin. A novel by Hans Fallada, a name that means nothing to me. The praise on the cover is lavish – “…a masterpiece.”, “Extraordinary … redemptive” – but what can one read from that these days? It is a world war II novel (a period I’m curious about), set in Berlin (a city I’d love to live in someday). I pick it up and bring it home.

* * *

Hans Fallada – have you heard that name before?

No, never.

It’s this novel I picked up the other day, at the familia center. The one set in Berlin in 1940, remember?

Ah, yes.  A recent novel?

It was written in 1947, but the English translation came out only last year.

How’s the book?  

I’ve only read about 50 pages, but there’s something about it that has me hooked. The pace is quick and gripping, but it isn’t that. The characters…

I’m listening – what about them?

They’ve already assumed a strong presence, somehow. I feel I’ve been following them a long time, but it’s only been a few chapters. Then there’s the setting – dark and gloomy. It feels like misfortune is lurking behind every corner.

Doesn’t look like something I’ll enjoy.

Well … but hope doesn’t seem to lag far behind.  The characters – they seem like victims at first – are willing to fight, to retain their dignity and respect.

What’s the point-of-view? Each character in first-person narration? That may give a hint, isn’t it, on the strong character development you talked about?

No, it follows the multiple character point-of-view – the omniscient narrator you seldom hear from these days. He seems a bit out of fashion, isn’t it?


Alright, She. It. Whatever.  But this is another charming aspect. Back to the basics, in a way. And by the way, it’s based on a true story.

Perhaps it’ll be made into a movie.

Strange that you say that, because the book so far reads a lot like a script. Maybe you’ll turn out right.  

Maybe. Maybe not.

Then there’s the prose – it feels raw, fresh and somehow “real”. Listen to this:

There’s nobody in the stairwell, and Borkhausen takes the stairs quietly and quickly. There’s a wild racket coming from the Persickes’ apartment, laughing and shouting, they must be celebrating again. He really needs to get in touch with people like that – they have proper contacts. If he did, things would start to look up for him. Unfortunately, people like that won’t even look at a part-timer like him, especially not the boys in the SS, and that Baldur is up himself like you wouldn’t believe. The old fellow’s different; when you catch him good and drunk, he’s good for five marks.

I wonder how that would sound in German.

You’ve made me curious now. Let’s see if the library has the original.

You’ll have to wait until next Saturday.

Next Saturday, of course.

8 thoughts on “Alone in Berlin

  1. The book, unfortunately for English-only readers, sounds better in German. Much authenticity is, sadly, lost in translation. This is an authentically German book by an authentically German author. Hans Fallada has, in fact, his own society in Carwitz, Germany where his home was located. It is a remote area where he could, for the most part, evade being bothered by the National Socialists, with only some sucess. His publisher was for most of his writing life was Ernst Rowolt, who was also a close friend. Both men remained in Germany during the war. Fallada was invited to leave and travel to safety in the UK, but refused, claiming he was only a German speaker and a German by birth and understanding. He was, and is, probably the greatest chronicler of the Weimar and National Socialist periods of German history through the fictional medium who ever lived and wrote. The observation has been made that Anthea Bell, who translated W.G. Sebald’s amazing writing, may have been better suited to translate Fallada. That Hans Fallada (his nom de plume) is just being recognised as a very important twentieth century writer is very good, if not a bit late.

    1. Thank you for this interesting background, Michael! You’ve increased my curiosity here.

      In the last couple of weeks I’ve asked a few colleagues at work if they’ve read this book. Most of them had heard of Hans Fallada (but hadn’t read any of his works.) I’m not sure if this is representative in any way, but given how little he is known beyond Germany I was surprised how many people here recognized the name. (Strangely, some of these people had not heard of Sebald!)

  2. Wonderful post about the happenstance find in a bookshop – always worth writing about! I’ve never heard of this author and hope you’ll write more when you’ve finished.

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