Hans Fallada: A Small Circus

March 3, 2016

41Yw4NA2ZJL._AA160_ 51XRh+98YIL._AA160_51Yw6uWt7nL._AA160_One of the problems, when a long-lost novel is rediscovered and re-published, is that publishers then want to cash in. This happened when Hans Fallada’s brilliant novel of protest in wartime Berlin, Alone in Berlin, was rediscovered. It has recently been filmed, to not very scintillating reviews. The novel portrays the tribulations faced by an ordinary Berlin couple whose son is killed on the Eastern Front and who decide to protest against the war, by leaving anonymous postcards in public places: eventually they are tracked down, tried and executed. What works well in this novel is the suffocating atmosphere of the wartime city, and the characterisation not only of the hero and heroine, but also of the detective in charge of the investigation.

So publishers have duly dredged through the archives and found all Fallada’s novel and published them. Wolf Among Wolves I found quite interesting, but I really think that A Small Circus could have been left undiscovered, and I have been thinking about why.

It’s set in the late twenties in a small Pommeranian town, and deals with small-town politics, corruption, the sleaziness of the local press and the utterly chaotic times leading up to the rise of the Nazis – for 550 pages. There are one or two interesting characters who are developed in a little detail, but there are so many characters that the book needs a listing and explanation of their roles – like War and Peace! – and the majority are cardboard cut-outs.

You get – perhaps for the first time in my case, and this is to Fallada’s credit – a clear and detailed picture of the total chaos of those times, and the struggles of the Weimar Republic to achieve any sense of legitimacy or loyalty from many of its citizens. Everyone seems corrupt and out for themselves and it seems like cats fighting in a sack. And yet, the sheer length of it, the minute details, the petty squabbles, which perhaps might have seemed illuminating to readers in the forties when it was written, are ultimately rather dull… it wasn’t that I didn’t actually dislike this novel, but that it was such an effort to read it; it didn’t grip me, but I persevered to the end. I don’t see myself re-reading it, yet I’ve already read Alone in Berlin twice and will be going back to it.

What’s the problem? I think that it’s dated in the detail, and although I learned a couple of things about those times through being immersed in the details, it wasn’t really worth it. I was also irritated by the translation at times – it’s a new one, presumably the only one into English – because it used too many anachronistic words and phrases, that are of our day and times and could not have been said then…

Digressing a little, I do read about and reflect on those times a good deal. I have always subscribed to the idea that if the Allies hadn’t been so brutal and revengeful towards the defeated Germany, we might have been spared Hitler and the consequent evils. But more recently, having spent time in those parts of France devastated and occupied during the Great War, I have more understanding of why the French were so vengeful…

2 Responses to “Hans Fallada: A Small Circus”

  1. cooperatoby Says:

    I have to say I found ‘Alone in Berlin’ wandered a bit and would have been more powerful if it had been shorter – but then I’m a slow reader. There is an addictive atmosphere in books about life under the Nazis though – it invests every little thing with immense importance. So thanks for the warning – I’ll stick to Len Deighton who is a master of fascinating detail. I’m even semi-committed to starting War & peace again after since it’s been on the telly, if I can dig out in Leeds the 2-volume set my mum gave me 40 years ago!


    • litgaz Says:

      I agree with your idea of the addictive atmosphere, and I think having visited some of the museums in Berlin, particularly the German Resistance one, made me like the book even more. Isolated acts of great bravery or recklessness. War & Peace I do recommend, and if you can manage it, Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate is regarded as a twentieth century version.(I agree).


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