It took me a while to get into this book, despite the promising opening: the post woman Eva Kluge delivers to the apartment building on Jablonski Straße and thereby introduces the reader to its inhabitants. The Nazi family is celebrating the defeat of France (Fallada’s occasional use of the present tense is catching!) and there is a telegram for the Quangels to tell them that their son “has fallen”. Their previous acceptance of the Nazi regime – even acknowledgement that they had benefited from the economic changes Hitler had wrought earlier – is no longer possible for them.
I got stuck at that point: there were too many hateful characters, and there was always the knowledge that things were not going to end well. But I tried again and was glad I did so. It’s a gripping book – not just as a thriller (even though the outcome is obvious), but more in its depiction of working-class and low-life Berlin, and in the moral questions it raises about how an ordinary person should live under a brutal and unjust regime.
The only moral action is to resist. However, the dreadful irony is that efforts at active resistance are futile: all but 18 of the Quangels’ postcards calling for civil disobedience are handed in unread. Worse: discovery of a postcard risks revealing other secret acts of resistance to the Gestapo. Some – like Trudel and Karl – wish to resist but are unsuited to it. By becoming parents, they risk aiding the Nazis: their as-yet-unborn child will join the Hitlerjugend in due course. The only “convert” to the Quangels’ point of view kills himself.
It’s a brilliant and searing picture of the fear and brutality of wartime Berlin which recalled Gone to Ground. It’s not perfect: Fallada wrote it quickly as a Soviet-backed commission in 1946 at the end of his life. Towards the final pages of the novel he seems to bring in characters simply to broaden the moral questioning: the cultured conductor who shows the taciturn and unsociable Quangel that there is more to life than work, money and keeping yourself to yourself; the consumptive chaplain who risks his life to comfort prisoners. And the sudden appearance of Christian themes seems like an afterthought – except that it is a culturally recognisable method of portraying the redemption and rebirth which must have been needed after the end of the war.
In addition to its moral challenges, it also left me wondering how many of the real prototypes of the worst characters survived the war and prospered unpunished. The prison doctor, perhaps?