‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada


(★★★☆☆) – disappointed

I finally finished it! Admittedly, my progress through this book was affected by my exams, however it did at times present itself to be a difficult read. Prior to reading, I had heard so many amazing, five-star reviews of it. Disappointingly, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. I wanted so much to love this book, but there were no points where I found myself utterly gripped to the storyline. The book has been described as a ‘cat and mouse game’ however, I never really felt the frustration of either Otto or Inspector Escherich that would make it worthy of being described as something as frantic or panic-stricken as a cat and mouse chase would be.

‘Alone in Berlin’ has an alternate name which I thought was much better fitting. ‘Every Man Dies Alone’ perfectly evokes many of the different characters’ stories. Otto and Anna are the obvious ones, both facing their deaths alone after the expectation that they would be reunited one more time before execution, showing that even the hero and heroine of the book definitely do not get even a slice of a happy ending. But apart from the Quangel’s, I also liked how this title reflects the lives of Enno Kluge and Borkhausen. Kluge is manipulated by Inspector Escherich into committing a lonely suicide, and his life is ridden with people who think he’s a weak fraud, which also makes him fit in with this title. Furthermore, at the close of the book, Borkhausen’s rejection by his son when he is a homeless and penniless man demonstrates how his earlier actions, also motivated by the manipulation of the Nazi Party catch up with him at the end. The disgusting and terrifying nature of the SS and the Gestapo is one of the book’s strongest points. For me, it was best demonstrated when Escherich, the cocky, wily and seemingly fearless Inspector is assaulted by the Gestapo and the end of chapter 45. We see his nonchalant facade disappear as he is beaten up and he becomes ‘acquainted with fear’ and how ‘a single punch can turn him into a wailing wretch’.

On the positive side, after about 250 pages the book did have more of a developed story line, and more things started to happen as the Quangels were arrested. The members of the court when Anna and Otto are put on trial are described perfectly and the reader really gains a sense of the injustice of Nazi Germany and how easy it is to commit a ‘crime’. All the chapters while Otto is imprisoned in his various locations are good, and the characters like Lorenzo the priest give the reader hope that not all people living at this time were monsters.

Some things that irritated me throughout the book. The chapter names often completely ruined the premise of the next chapter. Usually, they weren’t too bad, for example ‘Nocturnal Conversation at the Quangels” however, naming a chapter ‘The Death of Escherich’ just completely took the punch and shock out of the moment when the Inspector commits suicide, which would have been a completely unexpected turn, had the reader not already been notified by the chapter title. Also, Otto and Anna are forever being described as ‘elderly’ and I thought, until maybe the last couple of chapters he was in his 70s at least. However, it turns out he is only fifty three! Correct me if I’m wrong, but since when does being in your early fifties make you an ‘old man’? Also, I thought that after the really well developed characters of Escherich and even the short lived story line of Inspector Zott, Fallada just kind of threw in Laub, who the reader didn’t get to know, I know that I could reel off many of Escherichs personality traits for example, which is great, but probably not even one of Laub’s. This was disappointing.

Overall, I thought the book needed a good old edit. It was said that Fallada wrote it in 24 days, and that’s pretty clear. The lumbering and long paragraphs took so long to wade through and overall they compromised the value of the great and completely unique storyline, which was the one thing that brought the book to life. I would say that it is a book best read in a short space of time, but its 568 pages slightly prevent that. I do think that this book is a classic, as life in Berlin and wartime Germany is encapsulated well, and the features it brought such as the ruthless SS and Gestapo, not to mention the storyline that is like no other. My idea of a good book is one that makes me feel all emotions. This book has no humour, no irony, no sarcasm, it is merely a retelling of a good story. However, it more frustrated me that with a few chapters cut out and improved conciseness, this book could have been absolutely brilliant.