December 08, 2009

Alone in Berlin

When I was 15 or 16 and going through my Hemingway period, reading everything I could find by him or about him and copying bits from Death in the Afternoon to tape up above my desk, I came across something in which he listed the books he thought everyone should read. Everyone! Me!

As I recall, the list was heavy on Rooshians, as Hemingway describes Ezra Pound calling his beloved Dostoevsky & Co in A Moveable Feast  --  “To tell you the truth, Hem, I’ve never read the Rooshians” he has him confessing -- which were a big part of my literary landscape at the time anyway, and there would have been a few others I’ve forgotten because I simply got them and read them, but there were two which eluded me, due to them having eluded my parents and our small local library.

In those pre-internet days that meant you just kind of filed them away in your head to see if you’d run across them someday, somewhere. The first one, The Lost Grove, the autobiography of the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti, showed up maybe ten years later, in a remainders bookstore in Italy. The second held off until ... this year.  It was Everyone dies alone by Hans Fallada. I hadn’t thought of it in years, had long stopped wondering who this mysterious man with the strange interlanguage, fairy tale name was, but suddenly there was a review of it in the TLS, a brand-new English translation, with a less-literal version of the title – it’s called Alone in Berlin – but it was clearly The Book, the one Hemingway wanted me to read.

Hans Fallada turned out to be the pen name of a man who in his life knew both success and suffering, mostly suffering: at eighteen he had killed a friend in a bungled suicide pact, he was addicted to drugs, spent time in prison for theft, and although in the interwar years he had written bestsellers including one picked up by Hollywood and made into a movie, he couldn't make himself leave Berlin when he should have and spent the war in a terrible state, with Goering pressuring him to write pro-Nazi propaganda, which he sort of gave into and sort of didn't, succumbing to alcohol and drugs again and ending up in a Nazi insane asylum. He wrote this book the year after the war ended, in only 24 days, and died not long thereafter.

I asked the library to get it. It came, and I started reading it by chance on the day after the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, November 9th. More pertinently, it was also the day after the 71st anniversary of Kristallnacht, as the book turned out to be a depiction of life in Berlin under the Nazis, as seen through the thoughts and actions of a cast of average, just-getting-through-the-day men and women. It is over 500 pages of which every single one is dark. It reminds me of nothing so much as Rossellini’s great neorealist film Germania Anno Zero, perhaps the most depressing film I’ve ever seen, and I've seen many, set in Berlin after the city's surrender and occupation.

Maybe it’s even more depressing, considering that in Germania Anno Zero we see a beaten people, which you can’t help but feel contributes to their passivity. Here they are active, and most of them are either jackals or suck-ups to authority, or both. The plot -- based on a true story -- revolves around a couple who are dropping anti-Nazi postcards around Berlin, risking their lives, and it goes something like this: out of 48 postcards they distribute, 44 are in the hands of the Gestapo within a few weeks, and the four which are not, were not passed from hand to hand to read, as they had hoped, but had been burned, or ripped up and flushed down the toilet.

I skipped bits at first, the build-up was uneven (not much time to rewrite and polish when you write a 500 page novel in 24 days) but when I got to the last third or so, from when the couple are caught and put on trial, I couldn't skip a word. The depiction of the nightmare world of totalitarianism is so disturbing  that it made me physically uncomfortable, not because of scenes of gore or torture but because of the overwhelming sense of oppression. I can see how Hemingway would have loved us all to read this book, together with Rafael Alberti's terrible stories about the other ghost stalking Europe, as one of his poems called Generalissimo Franco of Spain.

One funny thing that came out of all this was that I went searching the internet to see if I could find that list again to see what else was on it. It turns out that Hemingway loved making lists of books everyone should read, and there are hundreds of them around. Among them was hidden this gem: a list of the books in his library in his Finca in Cuba, compiled by a team of Cuban librarians after he died. As they couldn’t speak English, the books were all the same to them, so that right after his Rooshians, you find the recipe booklet for his Waring Blender. Or maybe they were smarter than it seems and were simply well aware of the essential role of the frozen daiquiri in Hem’s philosophy of life.

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 05:30


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