Monday, February 18, 2013

Book 22: Every Man Dies Alone

"He might be right: whether their act was big or small, no one could risk more than his life.  Each according to his strength and his abilities, but the main thing was, you fought back." (132)

Sometimes, a novel is more important because of what it represents than the actual writing or the novel itself.  Set in World War II era Berlin, the novel tells the story of Otto and Anna Quangel, a working class couple, who decide they have to do something to oppose Hitler's regime after their son's death during the conquest of France.  The story itself was written in 1946/47, when the wounds were still rather fresh, and is inspired by a true story.  Hans Fallada was a prominent German writer prior to Hitler's rise, and at that time was probably best known for the novel Little Man, What Now? which is about a German couple living in Berlin during the Depression, whose lives just seem to get worse and worse yet do not despair.  When Hitler came to power, many German authors left Germany; others became part of the regime.  Fallada tried to straddle the middle - he stayed in Germany but attempted to write novels that would neither offend nor support the Nazis.  The afterword specifically mentions one novel he wrote and changed to appease the Nazis, the ending being somewhat supportive of the regime.  After the war ended, a friend gave him the Gestapo file on Otto and Elise Hamperl, a couple that started a postcard campaign against Hitler and eluded capture for almost two years, inspiring this novel.
This novel tells a very different story from what one usually sees in Holocaust or World War II literature.  The Quangels resist, but this isn't the type of effective, organized and inspiring resistance so often portrayed in novels.  Instead, it is the story of two working class people with little education and their campaign against the Nazis.  Every Sunday, Otto writes one or two postcards, calling on the German people to wake up and realize what is going on, decrying the actions of Hitler and the government, and on Monday or Tuesday, Otto and Anna leave these postcards in random buildings, hoping that someone will read them, pass them on and be called to action because of them.  As Fallada shows in his novel, Otto and Anna do not have the effect they believe they do - basically, every postcard gets promptly turned into the Gestapo or the authorities and the few that aren't are destroyed as soon as the person that found them realizes what they are reading.  Basically, Fallada chooses to tell the story of people that are basically completely ineffectual in their efforts, but are still risking their lives to do the right thing.  It's actually a very interesting perspective to tell a story from, and Fallada has various characters throughout the novel to compare and contrast with the Quangels.  For example, there is Trudel, the Quangels' son's former fiancee, who finds comfort in family life but begins to ask herself about her own complicity by not acting against the Nazis; Eva Kluge, the postwoman (and my favorite character) who leaves the Nazi Party after she is confronted with an atrocity that her son has committed; Judge Fromm who is guided by the concept of justice.  These are the people that do small things and take small stands but even these things can be dangerous.  On the other side of things are the thugs and opportunists that have gained power from the Nazi's ascent, and the small time crooks and informers that are at the bottom of society regardless of who is in charge.  Some of these characters are rather cartoonish, and incredibly selfish, but I actually liked that Fallada chose to tell a smaller story, and in a way focused his attentions on one small building in a working class neighborhood in Berlin.  Its inhabitants included the Quangels, the Persickes (ardent Nazis), Judge Fromm, Mrs. Rosenthal (a Jew), and the informer and thief in the basement while Eva Kluge was their postwoman.
Unfortunately, I didn't love the novel, though I wish I had.  Fallada has a very simple writing style, and it's easy to follow but I can't say I always like how he portrays people that much.  Having read Little Man, What Now? in college, I think I can honestly say it's just the author's style that doesn't do it for me - I'm not sure if it's Fallada's beliefs or his characters' beliefs but there is a certain amount of "men do this, women do that" in his novels that just prevents me from enjoying them more.  In some ways the relationship between Otto and Anna is very sweet, but in other ways, Otto is very stubborn and Anna gives in to him in ways I didn't like.  The women seem to be very melodramatic and given to grand statements (I feel like I saw this with Trudel especially).  I think it is a story that deserves to be told, and even if the Quangels/Hamperls didn't have any effect on the German populace, it is an affirming story to see that people will do the right thing even against impossible odds.  While I liked the way some of the story developed, in the end I think this novel is significant not because it is an outstanding novel but because of what it represents and the stories behind its creation.

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