By guest blogger and founder Book group member Janet O’Kane:
For the first time I can remember, everyone who came to the February 2012 meeting was in agreement about that month’s book. We greatly admired Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, an account of an elderly couple’s peaceful campaign of resistance against the Nazis in working-class Berlin during World War 2 (WW2). That’s not to say there were no negative comments, but this is definitely a book far greater than the sum of its parts. And it stimulated lots of discussion, hence the length of this post!
Ann R was unable to attend but the comment she sent through probably summed up the Group’s verdict: ‘The story took its time to get going, but then became gripping’.
Margaret considered it ‘intriguing’ and ‘a positive reading experience’. She praised the book’s apparent authenticity in its depiction of what people had to do to survive life under the Third Reich. The climate of fear and suspicion was well evoked, for example in the scene when Harteisen picks up the first postcard and takes it to his attorney. Despite being friends since school they both start to think the other may have set a trap. The book also describes in detail the terrible cruelty, both psychological and physical, dealt out by the SS and the Gestapo to their fellow Germans.
In Margaret’s opinion, one of the themes of the book is decency. There are good people everywhere, despite the terrible things that happen around them, like the Quangels, Trudel and Karli, and the Judge who tries to save Frau Rosenthal. And although it felt a little contrived, the ending was optimistic in its depiction of one young man starting a new life for himself,
Barbara couldn’t join us but emailed her comments. She worried she may not engage with the book because she doesn’t usually like reading about WW2, so was pleasantly surprised to be gripped by it. She found many characters, such as Otto Quangel, Kluge and Escherich, to be well-drawn. But most extraordinary was the story itself, which was based on a true case. To her, a truly affecting moment was during the interrogation of Quangel when he realised so few of his postcards had actually been read.
Martin found the book depressing; it featured so few good people. However, it did bring home what a horrible situation many ordinary Germans found themselves in. We all agreed that as victors of WW2, the British produced many books and films about our own exploits afterwards but rarely considered how our ‘enemies’ suffered too. It reminded him of Stasiland, Anna Funder’s account of life in East Germany.
Having lived in Germany for four years, Rose was fascinated by both the book and its author, and intends to visit his other work. She wouldn’t use the word ‘enjoyed’ to describe how she felt while reading it because she felt so sorry for the Quangels and their attempt to do something, however small.
Paula expressed one of the problems several of us had with this book, that it followed lots of seemingly unconnected people at the beginning. However, their parts in the overall story became clear towards the end as the different strands are drawn together. She asked herself, ‘Is this a masterpiece?’ (as several reviewers have claimed) and reluctantly concluded the answer was ‘No’. The reason for its power lies not in the writing but in its authenticity. She drew parallels with Jung Chang’s White Swans and the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Helen admitted she tends to be narrow-minded about books set in other countries, but managed to read the whole book. Although she also found it depressing, she appreciated the flashes of humour, such as Otto Quangel’s musings on the ridiculous use of the term ‘farewell’ when saying goodbye to other doomed prisoners before his execution.
I was also taken by the black humour in the book, particularly the executioner who politely asks Quangel to sweep up his own hair after being shaved and checks that he remembered to do this as he is about to behead him. There was also bitter irony: the Quangels’ postcards influenced no one except Escherich, the man tasked with tracking them down, and he shoots himself. Some images have stuck in my mind: the factory worker who fed his arm into a saw in protest, Frau Quangel knitting in her prison cell waiting to be reunited with the husband who is already dead. Like others, I didn’t find reading the entire book easy but was glad I persevered.
Most of us had concerns about the actual writing in Alone in Berlin. As described above, these did not prevent us from recognising the power of the narrative, but they did lessen our enjoyment. We felt some of the language was clumsy, which was possibly a result of translation from German and an attempt to replicate dialects. Some thought it was also slow-moving and over-long, and could have benefited from stricter editing. The shifts in tense for no apparent reason also irritated some of the Group, while others didn’t notice this.
The edition of Alone in Berlin we read included information about the author, whose real name was Rudolf Ditzen, and the true story behind the book. The Group agreed these extras increased their interest in the book and added to its authenticity. Ditzen led a life which reads like a work of fiction itself. He survived being shot in a duel, was committed to a sanatorium for the mentally ill, suffered serious drug addiction, and had one of his books made into a Hollywood film in 1934. He survived WW2, wrote Alone in Berlin in a matter of weeks, and died in 1947 before it could be published.
Next meeting: Tuesday 6th March at 6.30pm, at Doolally’s, Marygate, Berwick. A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan.