Nightmare in Berlin by Hans Fallada review – a compelling portrait of postwar Germany

A hallucinatory atmosphere and punchy style sweep the reader into a murky, chaotic world

Hans Fallada’s career was chaotic and disastrous. Posterity is lucky to rescue anything from the long catastrophe. In ideal circumstances, he would have been the sort of novelist to address social issues in a popular, palatable style, enjoyed by a wide and serious-minded readership. As it happened, he had the bad luck to write in Germany, between the last years of the Weimar republic and the end of the second world war.

The circumstances in which Fallada had to write and tried to publish badly affected his novels. Two are worth our attention: Little Man, What Now? and the novel published in English as Alone in Berlin (the original title, Everyone Dies Alone, has a more authentically sour Fallada tang). The first was an international bestseller in the very early 1930s, and went on being read here and there (I first read it in Oxford in the 80s – so much for Fallada being totally forgotten). The second was published immediately after the war, and was not a success. Only on its reissue in the 21st century did it find a substantial audience.

These two novels, Fallada at his best, have a curious quality. They are light and innocent in tone, like musical comedies; they have a charming note of sweet naivety; and they move into some of the darkest areas of 20th-century history. In the first, a working-class couple marry and sink into terrible privation; in the second, a quiet couple mount a secretive protest against the Nazis and pay the price. In both, one feels as the book progresses that this gently middlebrow tone just shouldn’t be sucked into recounting these awful events; the apt comparison, perhaps, is with Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series which, despite determined chirpiness and technical limitations, still found itself having to chronicle the Aids crisis. There is no escape from the Nazis, either for the quietly decent individuals or the romantic comedy.

There is a good biography in English by Jenny Williams. If Rudolf Ditzen – Fallada’s real name – had a career that was murky and problematic, the texts of his novels are just as problematic. He tried to come to an accommodation with the Nazis, and actually followed their instructions in regard to some of his novels. (The Penguin Modern Classics edition of Iron Gustav presents a reconstruction of what Fallada’s original intentions might have been, without the final apotheosis of its hero joining the Nazi party.) By the time war broke out, however, they had given up on each other. He had the luck of being incarcerated for mental illness during the last year of the war, when universal conscription was being applied elsewhere: immediately afterwards, this heroin addict and alcoholic was the least culpable person around, and found himself being installed as the mayor of a small town, Feldberg.

The Nightmare, retitled Nightmare in Berlin for marketing purposes, was written in 1946 and tells, with minimal adornment, the events that crashed over Fallada and his second wife, Ulla, also addicted to heroin. The hero Doctor Doll is, like Fallada, made mayor of a small town, Prenzlau, by the Russians, and finds himself confronting whingeing ex-party members. He and his wife go back to Berlin in autumn 1945, where they find their former flat occupied, to deal with bureaucracy, to overcome terrible ill-health using a broken-down medical service and finally to establish themselves in some kind of security.

The book has a terrible hallucinatory quality – people arrive and disappear, offer help or resistance for no reason – which partly reflects the huge amounts of drugs and alcohol being taken by all involved: Dr Doll, Frau Doll and probably the author himself (Fallada had resumed his use of morphine in late 1945). The book was written, like most of Fallada’s books, at tremendous speed, between February and August 1946, and its confusions and evident changes of conception are compelling as a portrait of the times. Fallada’s uncertainty about what sort of book this might be means that only slowly does Dr Doll emerge as a popular author like Fallada. The always tremendously punchy Fallada style sweeps the reader along; the murk and hysteria and chaos are (just about) contained.

Not contained in this translation, however, which is careless to the point of the amateurish. The translator, Allan Blunden, has a tin ear for register, and some of Fallada’s most direct and concise slaps come out completely wrong. At one point, Doll meets a gloomily death-obsessed doctor. “Welch Gespenst!” he thinks – perhaps “What a ghoul!” Blunden’s version, “What a spooky character!”, is hopelessly wrong.

One of the glories of Fallada’s writing is his joy in the Berlin dialect, and the landlady here is a delight: “Da is jemand vom Wohnungsamt ruffjezogen, erst vor een paar Tagen, ’ne Tanzerin oder Sängerin oder irgen so wat vom Theata, ick weess doch nich.” Blunden’s only gesture towards dialect is a completely pointless dropping of an H: “Somebody turned up from the ’ousing office a few days ago, a dancer or singer or something to do with the theatre, I don’t rightly know.”

The vulgar and anachronistic decision to “improve” on Fallada by putting his characters’ thoughts in italics, à la Dan Brown, may be the publisher’s. But it is the translator who has read Fallada’s simple and direct statement that a character “thought” something and has decided to improve it, several times, by saying in a perfectly meaningless way that the character “thought to himself”.

Fallada is a lovable author; he stands above Stefan Zweig among the novelistic chroniclers of the time, but below Joseph Roth and, of course, Thomas Mann. I hope the deserved success of Fallada’s novels encourages publishers to look at other works of the period and revive some now rather neglected authors: Erich Kästner’s Fabian has never quite attracted the attention it deserves here, and from the generation after Fallada, Heinrich Böll’s early novels and Siegfried Lenz’s magnificent Deutschstunde seem to have dropped from sight. The urgency of the historical subject is overwhelming: what we (and translators) might remember is that the book that most matters is the one that is best written.

Philip Hensher’s Tales of Persuasion is published by 4th Estate.

Nightmare in Berlin is published by Scribe. To order a copy for £13.11 (RRP £15.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Philip Hensher

The GuardianTramp

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