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Every Man Dies Alone
translated by Michael Hofmann
Melville House ($16.95)
by Malcolm Forbes
A mysterious person is dropping mysterious postcards across the city. No case for the police, surely. But the city happens to be Berlin, the date 1940. This is no careless postman or serial litterer at work. The city’s custodians are the country’s rulers, and they have little patience for anything mysterious: mysterious matters are unorthodox and unknown, and that won’t do. The state has to know all in order to rule absolutely. Thus our postcard writer must be tracked down and stamped out.
Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone seems to be a tale we have heard before: the little man versus the totalitarian menace that enslaves him. But Otto Quangel isn’t Sophie Scholl. He is no educated dissident and has no White Rose-type resistance group to seek refuge among. He is a blunt, gruff factory foreman with his wife’s support, but chiefly he acts alone. While the White Rose group printed articulate leaflets that quoted Goethe and Schiller and were aimed at the German intelligentsia, Quangel’s postcards are badly written, riddled with spelling and grammar mistakes, and are left rather than distributed—in lobbies and stairwells, addressed to whoever will stumble upon them. Despite the crude writing the message is all too clear, and if he’s caught he will be charged with treason and executed. He’s aware of the risk but he can’t sit tight. Doing nothing is tacitly complying—something he refuses to do.
Enter Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo, entrusted with tracking down “the postcard phantom,” or Hobgoblin, as he dubs him. This sobriquet is apt, for in Escherich’s eyes his quarry is so mysterious as to be otherworldly; what real person in his right mind would attempt to resist the strong arm of the law and iron fist of the state? Quangel thus intrigues him and arouses admiration in the reader. His mission is doomed from the outset, but that makes it appear all the more commendable. An earlier Fallada novel, Little Man, What Now? (1932), tells of one man’s struggle to stay afloat during the Great Depression; Every Man Dies Alone offers a similar tale of struggling, but on a grander scale and featuring, tragically, an unvanquishable foe. This Goliath can’t be slain, but that doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to spur on our diminutive hero.
Every Man Dies Alone is monumental for the modern reader, but of course, the book will have its detractors, critics less of its quality than of its content. In Britain and America, after all, two World Wars and one Cold War still sell. Saving Private Ryan spawned Band of Brothers. Schindler’s List captured Academy Awards and arguably paved the way for Life is Beautiful to do the same four years later. Spy novelists write period pieces with the Berlin Wall still standing, partly out of nostalgia, and partly because Soviet Russia is a more visible and therefore interesting enemy than amorphous al-Qaeda. That said, we may have reached our saturation point. The Germans in particular want to move on; most German writers and filmmakers have had to use these conflicts as a backdrop in order to get a stab at success in the English-speaking world. The truth is, we are still beguiled by the horrors of the 20th century. Two German films from recent times, Das Leben der Anderen and Der Untergang, could translate fluently into Anglo-American critical acclaim because the Stasi still scare us and Hitler’s downfall, more than anyone else’s, inspires patriotism rather than pity. It will be interesting to see if a new German film, Goethe, makes it onto an Oscar shortlist or even into a London cinema. Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, based on Bernhard Schlink’s book of the same name, also had Nazism as its subject matter, and if we felt uncomfortable wondering if we should have any sympathy for Kate Winslet’s character (is the notion of a “good Nazi” oxymoronic?), we knew we were witnessing another competent handling of this brutal and tragic era.
As for other detractors, it has to be the all-pervading bleakness that repels; many will shun the misadventures of Otto Quangel because his travails can only lead to tragedy. What’s the point in reading a book where good can’t trounce evil? Why root for a character if he has no hope at winning? But not every novel can have a cheery conclusion. We can take Tennyson’s line and twist it: “better to have resisted and lost than never to have resisted at all.” Fallada portrays Quangel as an anti-hero who almost knows his fate but won’t let that dent his bravery or sway him from his proposed course of action. In a marvellous head-to-head with Escherich, after being told he is no more than a gnat trying to take on an elephant, Quangel retaliates with, “I had to fight, and given the chance I would do it again.” Later, when he is in the dock, Judge Feisler (based on Roland Freisler, the head judge of the Volksgerichtshof—people’s court—who sentenced Sophie Scholl to death) screams at him, calling him ungrateful because under National Socialism he has been able to save money: “To oppose the commonweal that cared for you...You don’t know the meaning of gratitude.” Quangel has been biting the hand that feeds him, but for him it is a hand that also has the power to strangle him. Undaunted by Feisler’s hysterics, he mocks the Nazi fantasy of the Thousand-Year Reich. This has echoes of Sophie Scholl chiding the real Judge Freisler: “You know as well as we do that the war is lost. Why are you so cowardly that you won’t admit it?” Quangel is sentenced to death and is congratulated by his cellmate for opposing evil and for having “behaved decently till the end.” Indeed, his bravery continues right up to the last seconds of his life. When his back-up plan fails, he accepts his punishment silently and stoically.
Escherich’s Hobgoblin, the phantom postcard writer, is dispatched by a regime that won’t tolerate subversion in any form, making the book a triumph of the spirit rather than the body. Quangel’s cellmate tells him that we all die alone but our deaths aren’t in vain. “Nothing in this world is done in vain, and since we are fighting for justice against brutality, we are bound to prevail in the end.” This could have been a saccharine moment in a maudlin finale, but Fallada doesn’t waver. His authorial control throughout the book is superb—critical but never judgemental, mirroring events rather than preaching against their wrongness—and it is a testament to his mastery that as readers we don’t feel we’ve been here before. Every Man Dies Alone shines new light on a dark chapter, and Quangel is an original, unspectacular hero fighting the only way he knows how. The only mystery that remains is who, if anyone, will make the film adaptation of this extraordinary book.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011