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!


1950s 1980s Books in Translation Nobel Prize

Two Abandoned Nobels

The Piano Teacher Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek

Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004

Five words from the blurb: Vienna, emotional, self-destruction, intensity, porn

The Piano Teacher is an unrelenting, intense tale of one woman’s self-destruction.

Erika is a piano teacher who lives with her controlling mother. She begins an affair with one of her young students, but he cannot save her from her destructive cycle of self-harm.

I initially loved the gripping, emotionally charged narrative, but I quickly found I needed space to breathe, wishing there were some breaks from the darkness. I then began to find the narrative style, with its capitalised pronouns, irritating:

SHE only has to glance at this scene, and HER face instantly becomes disapproving. SHE considers her feelings unique when she looks at a tree; she sees a wonderful universe in a pinecone.

As the book progressed it became increasingly dark and sexually explicit. I found the scenes of her self-harm uncomfortable to read and her trips to watch pornographic shows held little interest.

I skimmed over several sections and then decided to give up entirely. This book has a grippingly original narrative voice, but it was too harsh for me.

Recommended to those with a strong stomach.


The Tin Drum (Vintage Classics)Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Günter Grass won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999

Five words from the blurb: Germany, Nazis, dwarf, scathing, horrors

The Tin Drum is one of those classics that had intimidated me for far too long. Inspired by German Literature month I decided to set my fears aside and give this imposing chunkster a try. Unfortunately, in this case, the intimidation was justified and I failed to finish this complex, multi-layered masterpiece.

The Tin Drum is narrated by Oskar, a dwarf with learning difficulties who calms himself by beating his toy drum. I’d love to be able to tell you what happens, but I’m afraid I can’t:

a) because very little happens
b) I didn’t get that far into the book

The writing was impressive and I loved Oskar’s character, but the book had very little narrative drive. It skipped from one scene to the next and I struggled to see the connection between them.

I crawled at a snail’s pace through the first 100 pages, becomingly increasingly bored. After another difficult 20 pages I decided to abandon it. I’m sure that this book is a masterpiece and everything makes sense in the end, but I don’t think I’m in the right stage of life to appreciate it. I think I’ll give it another try in twenty years.

Have you tried reading either of these books?


2011 Recommended books

The History of History – Ida Hattemer-Higgins

Five words from the blurb: Berlin, Nazi, ghosts, flesh,  grief

The History of History is an outstanding piece of writing. It is original, moving and thought-provoking. I think it will scoop a host of literary awards this year and I hope you’ll read the rest of this review and decide to give it a try.

The History of History is set in Berlin. The central character, Margaret, is a tour guide in the city and so we learn all about the history of Berlin and its buildings through her. That makes it sound a bit dull, but it isn’t. This book is packed with quirky details that make the city come to life and I learnt an incredible amount about Berlin, especially its uses during WWII.

The primary focus of the book is suicide. The bombing raids and trench fighting of war have been covered in books many times before, but this is the first time I’ve read something which investigates these quiet, almost forgotten deaths. The tragic stories include that of a Jewish family, those who were close to Hitler at the end of the war and also the traumatic decision of mothers to murder their own children. Many parts of the book are devastatingly sad, but the book as a whole manages to avoid being overly tragic as the mood of the text is lifted at regular intervals.

I’m in love in the way I thought only thirteen-year-olds could be and I haven’t felt anything close to it for such a long time and the terrible thing is that I don’t think he loves me back. It’s ridiculous, this kind of full-blown sweet torture, that poets know so well and is so utterly ridiculous, where one vacillates between intense ecstasy and intense agony throughout the day, because one feels as if one were walking a tightrope where falling one way will mean waves of joy unknown to humankind and falling the other will mean the darkest hell. Your mood depends on which possibility you take most seriously at the time. Meanwhile, you attempt to stay on the tightrope, because that way you preserve a chance at the ultimate beauty.

Ida Hattemer-Higgins lived in Japan for a few years and the Japanese influence has clearly entered her work. Be prepared for anything to happen in this book, but don’t be worried because the author makes even the strangest things believable. There are points when the buildings of Berlin turn to flesh and Nazi ghosts haunt Margaret, but somehow it never seems ridiculous.

The book isn’t perfect. There is so much going on that it occasionally fails to merge the scenes together seamlessly, but I’m willing to overlook these minor teething issues as I’m sure that in a few months time I’ll have forgotten about any tiny problems I may have had with this book and only remember the vivid scenes.

The History of History is very well researched and if you have any interest in the way WWII affected different groups of people then this is for you.

I’m sure this will be one of my favourite reads in 2011.

Highly recommended.