Just recently I discovered Hans Fallada, a profound, deeply sensitive, newly translated German author who, in Every Man Dies Alone, explores the disturbing question of what it means to be fully human when surrounded by war and oppression.
In his novel, Fallada takes us into the destructive, disturbing atmosphere that he lived through, one that few writers have being able to describe in such detail. I felt that I was in Berlin living through the cruelty of the times; seeing, touching, feeling all the fear and tension that was felt by the majority of the German population living under the Hitler regime. In Nazi-controlled Germany during WWII, the loss of individual freedom became so stultifying that each person was left with a choice to either survive in half death, or risk everything by defying the system.
In Every Man Dies Alone, Fallada parades all manner of men before us in a compelling, deeply moving and true story which he turned into a novel. Obscure for many years, Fallada’s books are finally being translated into English.
This beautifully crafted masterpiece tells tells the horrendous tale of an elderly, working-class German couple living in Berlin during the Nazi Regime. It takes the reader on a suspenseful journey into the psychological conflict between what men do, and what they ought to do, when they observe injustice. It compels us to reflect on the world we live in. While most of us grow up reading about heroines and heros who have the courage to stand up for truth and justice, years pass, and our childhood dreams of noble acts of courage fade. We meld into the politically correct, safe, status quo, “don’t rock the boat” pattern -- but even in democracies, although minor by comparison, there are consequences This is not rational to the idealist, but it is a fact of life. One's freedom can gradually get chipped away unless it is guarded as a sacred right. Across the world freedom, compassion and human rights must be looked upon as necessary for the survival of the entire human race and the next step toward both intellectual and spiritual enlightenment.
Indeed there was nothing spiritual or religious about Otto Quarangel, or his wife Anna, living through WWII, yet there was a decency alive in the very marrow of their bones. They were both practical, hard-working people. He worked in a factory, she kept their little apartment clean and lived for the return of her son from the war. When they receive tragic news about their son’s death, their world changes, and they realize they have to choose to feel “free” by standing up to the Nazi suppression or slowly dying within. They choose the former and risk their lives in the hope that it will bring about a response from more German's hiding the same sentiments.
The book is filled with passion and a parade of despicable characters in positions of authority within the regime. This is brilliant writing as it weaves a refreshing thread of ironic humor throughout. The reader will meet some of the slimiest, most cowardly and vicious of men, all puppets of Hitler wielding authority over their own people with a vengeance and a goal of de-humanizing a whole culture. In this suspenseful page-turner the only hope is that the regime will fall and the war will end before all is lost.
Hans Fallada is an expert on the human condition, his writing cuts to heart of man’s inhumanity to man and how far and how deep this wielding sword can reach. This is a book that will last in our memories as it subtly challenges the reader to ask, “What would I do in the same circumstances?'
Hans Fallada was born in 1893, the son of a magistrate, and he lived until February 5, 1947, having survived WWI and WWII. Every Man Dies Alone was first published after his death and was translated into English for the first time in 2009. Currently, 10 of his of his 25 published works have an English edition.
Fallada had a tumultuous life and was prone to a variety of ailments, but he loved to read and was born to be a writer. Jenny Williams notes in her biography, “More Lives Than One”(1998) that Fallada's father would read aloud to his children works by Shakespeare and Schiller. Before he was 16 he immersed himself in the works of Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and Dickens.
Shortly after he turned 16 in 1909, he was in a severe road accident. He was run over by a horse drawn cart, then kicked in the face by the horse. A year later he contracted typhoid.
This was a turning point in an otherwise happy childhood. His adolescent years were characterized by increasing isolation and self-doubt compounded by the lingering effects of his ailments. He developed what became a life-long drug problem that started with the pain killers for his injuries after the accident. These issues manifested in multiple suicide attempts. The first attempt was in 1911 when he made a suicide pact with a friend. They decided to mask their suicides believing that a dual would be seen as more honorable. However, it was bungled because of the boy's inexperience with weapons. Fallada killed Hans Dietrich, but was only grazed by Dietrich's bullet. When he saw what happened Fallada was so distraught he picked up the gun and shot himself in the chest, The death of his friend insured his status as an outcast of society. Although he was found innocent of murder by way of insanity, from that point on he served multiple stints in mental institutions.
What is truly remarkable about this larger-than-life character is his resilience. With the ability to overcome obstacles that would confound even the hardiest of men, he was able to produce multiple works of literature that have been compared to Thomas Mann, Remarque, and Tolstoy. He was married twice and had one son.
Fallada remained a popular writer in Germany after his death. Although Little Man What Now had been a great success in the US and the UK, outside of Germany, Fallada faded into obscurity. Melville House re-issued several titles beginning in 2009 including Little Man, What Now?, and for the first time, Every Man Dies Alone. In 2010 Melville House released Wolf Among Wolves, in its first unexpurgated English translation.