Nightmare in Berlin

In the Foreword to his penultimate novel, Nightmare in Berlin, Hans Fallada concludes, “The book remains essentially a medical report, telling the story of the apathy that descended upon a large part, and more especially the better part, of the German population in April 1945.” He admits that “the author, too, is a child of his times, afflicted by that same paralysis.” The dateline is “Berlin, August 1946.” Six months later, Fallada died of heart failure. Addicted to morphine and mentally broken, he had, astonishingly, completed the two works — Nightmare in Berlin and Alone in Berlin — that crowned his literary reputation. And now Nightmare in Berlin, first published in 1947, is available in English, in a supple and graceful translation by Allan Blunden.

A compressed epic of despair, venality, shame, and endurance, this “strong book about a weak human being,” like most Fallada novels, mirrors its author’s travails. “For twelve years he had been bullied and persecuted by the Nazis,” Fallada writes of his protagonist, Dr. Doll, “they had interrogated him, arrested him, banned his books some of the time, allowed them at others, spied on his family life.” And Nazi defeat brings only a different despair. So it was for Rudolf Ditzen. Born in 1893, he assumed the pen name Hans Fallada in 1920, when Young Goedeschal was published, a novel of psychosexual turmoil, clearly inspired by real events. (In high Romantic German fashion, Fallada, at eighteen, had fought a mock duel with a fellow student — in fact, a suicide pact — in which he accidentally killed his friend and then tried to kill himself.)

Fallada’s youthful tragedy brought the first of many confinements. Imprisoned more than once for embezzlement; denounced and briefly jailed in 1933; hospitalized repeatedly for mental breakdowns, for alcohol and drug addiction, he nonetheless continued to write. Success arrived with the 1932 novel Little Man, What Now?, which Richard Simon, of Simon & Schuster, described in a 1933 letter to Fallada as “perilously close to a masterpiece.” And for a time Fallada’s novels, (the best known, perhaps, being Every Man Dies Alone), were as popular internationally as those of Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse. Decades later, it is easy to see why. Fallada’s urgent, laconic style plunges the reader into the quotidian detail of lives deformed by the struggle to survive. Nightmare in Berlin, for example, sets us down in a tranquil, domestic landscape that is saturated with fear. “Well into the night,” Fallada writes, “after a day filled with torment, they stayed sitting by the windows, peering out into the little meadow, towards the bushes and the narrow cement path, to see if any of the enemy were coming.”

In April 1945, in a small town in northern Germany, Dr. Doll, his young wife, and their neighbors await the arrival of the victorious Red Army. Eager to welcome the Russians as liberators, Doll spends hours tidying his garden, “clearing the last tangles of wire and rolling them up neatly.” For surely appearances will matter. But when three soldiers enter the house and Doll salutes them with a clenched fist and “Tovarich” on his lips, he is regarded blankly, as a thing. “All his cherished hopes for the post-war future lay in ruins, crushed under the withering gaze,” he admits. “He was a German, and so belonged to the most hated and despised nation on earth.” Soon the Nuremberg war crime trials will dispel any remaining illusions. “Had I known then what I know today about all these horrors,” Doll confesses, “I probably still wouldn’t have done anything — beyond feeling this powerless hatred.”

The novel is driven by these surges of emotion, but Fallada keeps our gaze on everyday details, on petty betrayals and intimate crimes. There’s “the mail clerk who had been a sergeant in the local Volkssturm . . . the landlord of the station bar, a bully, and, as it now turned out, another Nazi spy.” Hoping to reclaim their city apartment, the Dolls leave for Berlin on a freezing, overcrowded train that reeks of desperation. “We’re probably going to die soon anyway,” Doll consoles his wife, “but you can do it more discreetly and comfortably in the big city. They have gas, for one thing!” Fallada’s corrosive wit — used sparingly in this novel and to devastating effect — is oddly affecting. It draws us closer to these characters even as they surrender to the oblivion of morphine or to the macabre regimen of the sanatorium. “He loved the place,” Fallada writes of Doll in the asylum, “this corridor with its rust-red linoleum, onto which so many white doors opened, but all without door handles.” (Outside lies Berlin, “a nocturnal stone jungle . . . a dark sea of ruins” from which Doll eventually sees courageous survivors emerging. “Life goes on, always,” he concludes. But Fallada’s tightly constructed novel — a snug nesting doll of horror within horror — makes even that bland assertion seem foolish.

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