Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Veggie Books: Alone in Berlin

If you're anything like me, you read a lot of books and most of them entertain, amuse or educate. But they don't stay with me, not in a deep, lasting way. I might think of them, or even re-read them, but they're not necessarily books that I have to talk about, to recommend, to pass on. Those sort of books are pretty sparse, really, I think.

Last week I read two of them. One after the other. I would say books are like buses but the third book I read wasn't anywhere near as good, unfortunately, so it's not as if good things do come in threes. So much for the easy aphorism approach to blogging.

I'll leave you in suspense as to what the second book was, but the first was Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. Fallada had a pretty full-on life, involving stints in psychiatric care and problems with drugs and alcohol. He didn't write a vast amount of books, and when he wrote Alone in Berlin he knew it was the best he was going to achieve. It's a true story, set during the early 1940s, of a man and his wife who lose their son in the war and try to find some way of fighting Nazi rule. They settle on writing postcards containing anti-Hitler statements and leaving them in public buildings. It's a small rebellion that has very little effect, but if they get caught they're well aware they'll be sentenced to death.

It's easy, I think, to say - I wouldn't have stood for that. I would have spoken up about the atrocities committed by my leaders. But this book shows how difficult that is, because decent people want to protect their loved ones, their children, their older relatives. Fear for them utterly erodes the will to act, to save a stranger instead. And yet people still do act, amazingly - in the novel, an old Jewish woman is taken in and hidden by a retired judge. A young couple try to start a group to sabotage machinery at work. And the postcards, too, are an act of extreme bravery. All of these small rebellions can come to nothing - we already know Hitler was not defeated by his own people. This knowledge pervades the novel. It did not work; it was not enough.

One character in the novel, Eva Kluge, decides to leave the Nazi party, and is subjected to torture and disgrace for her decision. She leaves Berlin and moves to the countryside, where, one day, a boy on the run stops next to her vegetable patch and steals her breakfast.

In the last few months in the village, Frau Kluge has got a little used to these children: the bombing raids on Berlin had intensified, and the populace was called upon to send their children out into the countryside. The provinces are inundated with these Berlin kids. It's a curious thing; some of these kids can't adjust to the quiet of rural life. Here they have peace and quiet, better food, undisturbed nights, but they can't stand it, they have to go back to the metropolis. And so they set off: barefoot, begging for scraps of food, with no money, hounded by rural constables, they make their way resolutely back into the city that almost every night is ablaze. Picked up and returned to their rural communities, they give themselves a little time to put some flesh on their bones, and then run away back home again.

This present specimen with the challenging eye who was eating Eva's breakfast had probably been on the road for quite some time. She couldn't remember ever having seen a figure quite as filthy and ragged as this. There were straws in his hair, and she felt she could have planted carrots in his ears.

Eva takes in this boy, a member of Hitler Youth who has run away from an abusive father, and tries to teach him right from wrong. Can the indoctrinated learn a different path? That seems to me to be the key question of the novel.

Published in 1947, Alone in Berlin does not obey modern sensibilities, obviously. It's a wonderful product of its time, and gave me a fresh insight into that terrible war.

Golly, that was all very serious.


Dr Ian Hocking said...

Funny, I was just looking up at the spine of this book this morning. I thought: Christ, that looks depressing. I might give it a go...

Aliya Whiteley said...

Do you know, I didn't find it depressing. That's strange. I was too involved in their struggle to have the time to feel down about it. It seems that having characters that actively pursue hope stops the reader feeling despondent about their situation. Oooh.

Unlike in The Road, where I just wanted them to stop walking, lie down, cover themselves over with earth, and face the inevitable.

Frances Garrood said...

Tthis sounds very much my kind of book, and "triumph-of-human-spirit-over-adversity" (or attempt at it)novels aren't always depressing. But I loved The Road, partly I admit for the sheer brilliance of the writing. And there was a little hope at the end...wasn't there?

Tim Stretton said...

Never heard of this one, Aliya - sounds like I should look it up!

Neil George Ayres said...

Similarly odd, I was recommended this yesterday, and reminded that when I first heard about it I had meant to check it out. Is it a library or your own? Don't suppose you'd bring it along on Saturday? Pretty please?

Aliya Whiteley said...

Will bring on Saturday for you. Um. Remind me on Friday.

Frances, it was too little too late for me (The Road).

How weird that everyone has just started hearing about this book at the same time.

C. N. Nevets said...

Sounds like a powerful book. I'm not sure if I could read it or not, because it might strike too close to home. But thanks for calling attention to it, as it might come in handy as a recommendation.

Aliya Whiteley said...

I would say that the writing is not always smooth, but that roughness was part of the reason I liked it. It's not a slick book.