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Alone in Berlin

Who dares take on the state? During World War II in Germany, an old couple took a stand against Hitler to spread the truth of their times, writes Paramita Ghosh.

books Updated: May 04, 2009 18:19 IST
Paramita Ghosh

Hans Fallada
Penguin
* Rs 953 * pp 568

As a journalist, I usually go where I’m told. But what if it was 1945? In Berlin? In winter? That was a nasty place. Even Marlowe wouldn’t go there for breakfast. For all his hardboiled exterior, he was quite the soft egg: an obsession with fair play, honour, strict personal codes, that was Raymond Chandler’s detective. Rising Gestapo star, Inspector Escherich, would have eaten him alive.

The inspector, part of Hitler’s well-oiled intelligence machinery for sniffing out any kind of subversion — in this instance, the “differently minded German” — was on a case. He was looking for a man with a pen who had been leaving postcards (“Don’t give to the Winter Relief Fund, work as slowly as you can! Every stroke of war not done will shorten the war!”) all over Berlin to slow the war machine.

That man was Otto Quangel, the quiet foreman of a big furniture company who earned 40 marks a week and put some of it away. Otto Quangel as hero is Hans Fallada’s masterstroke in a newly translated Alone in Berlin, a brilliant noir about World War II, through whom Fallada, one of the best-known German writers of the 20th century, does away with the three usual suspects of Resistance novels — the ‘good German’, the ‘bad German’ and the ‘poor German’ (the suffering Jews).

At a time when everyone was spying on everybody else and cosying up to the Nazis, Otto and his wife, Anna, non-Jew Germans , open up a new front: an individual’s conscientious fight against an authoritarian state. As Otto tells Inspector Escherich after he is caught: “It doesn’t matter if one man fights or ten thousand; if the one man sees he has no option but to fight, he will fight, whether he has others on his side or not.”

Noir, it has to be said, is difficult to pin down. But it’s roughly this territory: insecurity, paranoia and claustrophobia are its constants. Its setting: a world drenched in gloom, shadow and occasional sunlight. Otto and his alter ego — I suppose you could see them like that — Inspector Escherich both walk noir territory. They are drawn in chiaroscuro; their features, motivations and activities, seemingly lit for the night. This is perhaps why, despite the first encounter in which Escherich baits Otto (“You must have known you had no chance. It’s not sensible… Are you suggesting that I supply the contents for the coffins?”), the last round in an interrogation cell sees the old power equation standing on its head. The SS inspector, the only man Otto Quangel converted with his anti-Hitler letters, ‘crosses over’ to kill himself.

Can characters, as screenwriter Paul Schra-der pointed out in an influential essay on noir, speak authoritatively from a space that is being continually cut into ribbons of light? They might, but you have to pare their language. And sometimes look beyond language as Georges Simenon does with characters set in Paris at the time of the Nazi occupation, the counterpoint to Fallada’s occupation novel set in Berlin.

So, 1940. Paris. Winter… In Georges Simenon’s Dirty Snow, 19 year-old Frank Friedmaier lives in a country under occupation. His mother runs a whorehouse, He is a pimp, a thug, a two-bit thief, and, as Dirty Snow opens, has just killed his first man. Ah, a hero? No. Frank is not connected with the French resistance in any way. Frank kills the enemy — without motive. He’s trying to understand himself. It’s a measure of his sickness and his world “that in order to discover himself he must commit acts of violence and betrayal”. In the end, when when he realises that corruption is one of the experiences available to people under occupation, he tells his interrogator: “I am not a fanatic, an agitator or a patriot. I am a piece of shit.. I want to die as soon as possible in whatever fashion you choose.”

Before his outright attack on Hitler’s state, Fallada’s protagonist, Otto Quangel, because of his silence and insularity from his surroundings, was, in many ways, also a compromised man. A whitewashed hero is a creative indulgence. Why insist on honour and its inevitability? Sorry to compare but much as I love Marlowe, Raymond Chandler, just doesn’t get these things.