2009 Books in Translation

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Alone in Berlin (Penguin Modern Classics) Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann

Five words from the blurb: ordinary, German, postcards, attacking, Hitler

Alone in Berlin begins in 1940 with a couple discovering that their only son has been killed fighting in France. Devastated by the news, the couple decide to drop postcards which attack Hitler across the city. This act of resistance is extremely dangerous and the couple risk their lives every time they step out of their apartment with a new piece of propaganda.

Alone in Berlin reads like a classic – the writing was simple, but had an effortless style:

It doesn’t matter if one man fights or ten thousand; if the one man sees he has no option but to fight, then he will fight, whether he has others on his side or not.

The pace was excellent in the beginning, but as the book progressed it began to flag a bit. I think this was mainly due to the inevitability of the conclusion (or possibly because this 600 page book was written in just 24 days and could have done with a bit more editing!)

The book did a fantastic job of showing what life was like for ordinary Germans living in Berlin. The difficulties and fear they faced were shown without sensationalism. Each character was well drawn and I loved the flawed nature of their personalities.

I want to criticise the book for its unlikely coincidences, but on reading the afterword I discovered that it is heavily based on fact. This makes the story more poignant, but also more frustrating. Warning, minor spoiler: Their tiny act of resistance put many people in danger, but failed to achieve anything. I prefer to read about people who make a real difference in the world and this couple just seemed to bumble around without having any real impact.

My only real criticism is that the book lacked atmosphere. There weren’t many descriptive passages and there was an emotional distance between the characters and the reader. Luckily I know enough about Berlin to be able to conjure up my own mental images of the city, but I’d prefer to have these reinforced by the text.

Overall this book has many positives, but seems to fall down the more you think about it. Recommended to those who’d like to know more about life in Berlin during WWII, but prefer gentler reads. 


The thoughts of other bloggers:

… this book is beautiful, a quiet book of common decency...The Parrish Lantern

…the momentum of this novel, which is divided into four chunks, is lost in the big baggy structure of it. Reading Matters

 …the novel brings to life superbly drawn characters… Euro Crime

I read this as part of German Literature Month – take a look for lots of great reading suggestions!


16 replies on “Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada”

Wow thanks for the link. This was the 2nd book I had read by Fallada & I agree it was sparse, but despite its subject matter I also found it beautiful

Parrish, Yes, I agree that (most of) it was beautiful. I really enjoyed reading it. It had a few flaws, but I’m still interested in trying his other books.

This sounds very interesting. The length is a challenge. I just read a book by Hans Keilson, Life Goes On, about daily life of a shop keeper in small town Germany better the wars I really liked.

Mel, I didn’t find the length a problem with this one. It was so readable and most of it was fast paced so the pages flew by. It felt much shorter than it was.

Thanks for the link, Jackie, although my blog URL/look etc has changed to this:

I remember desperately wanting to read this book and then being very disappointed by it — though everyone I know seems to love it. I liked the atmosphere of it and the characters and their little acts of resistance, but overall it was too meandering. I guess it’s quite Dickensian in that way and I’m not a Dickens fan.

Kim, Yes, I’ve wanted to read this book for a while. The amount of praise it has received has been amazing. It was a good book, but I don’t think my tastes align with everyone else as I wasn’t bowled over in the same way.

Sorry for getting your link wrong – I’ve changed it now.

I read Fallada’s “Every Man Dies Alone” and that story also had a couple leaving postcards around town. Strange that two of his books would have the same exact plot! I loved the book though…very dark and disturbing.

The opening lines of your post hit me hard, as ever since my son became a U.S. Marine my heart has been halfway up my throat. But, bravo for those parents who dropped the postcards about Hitler! Bravo for their courage! And, I love that the book is heavily based in fact. Not sure that I can read it, until my boy is out of the service, but I’m so intrigued by your review.

I picked this book up a couple of years back, but for some reason I couldn’t get into it. I don’t know if that’s because it’s translated and I found it didn’t flow well or what. I may pick it up again one day.

Nikki-ann, I don’t think the translation is the problem with this one. I think it is quite fragmented in the beginning, with lots of different characters being introduced. I can see why you couldn’t get into it and I wouldn’t recommend you try again if you didn’t enjoy the beginning as I thought that was probably the best bit!

I’ve read another Fallada which I liked but it was far shorter. The charcaters were very touching. I guess more editing in this case might have been good – on the other hand it sounds like it has a raw quality which is suitable for the topic.
Sorry for being so late to comment.

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