Reviewed: “Every Man Dies Alone” by Hans Fallada

Every Man Dies AloneNovels based on true events and real people can be hit or miss. There’s always a chance that too much artistic license will be taken to flesh out a story that doesn’t quite fill a novel and there’s always a chance that the true events and real people will be far more interesting than the novel can ever be.

Hans Fallada’s “Every Man Dies Alone” is neither of things. It bridges the gap between fiction and reality and it makes the reader realize that sometimes there is a compelling story in being absolutely ordinary.

Otto and Anna Quangel are the protagonists of Fallada’s story and they are based on Otto and Elise Hampel. The Hampels were ordinary citizens of Berlin during World War II when they decided that they had to do something to protest the war. They wrote treasonous postcards and left them around the city. There weren’t many people who saw the postcards and the culture of fear in Germany at the time was such that most people were terrified to read them. But the Gestapo was afraid of the writers of these postcards. Fallada was given the Hampels’ Gestapo file after the war and he created the Quangels in their place.

The Quangels don’t bring about an end to the war and they don’t even shake the foundation of the Third Reich. There’s a telling scene early on in the book in which Anna asks Otto if his plan for the postcards isn’t a “bit small” and he replies that they will be executed if they are caught. To some, it might seem as though there’s no point in risking one’s life when it is something small that might not mean anything – and this is a recurring theme in the book – but to the Quangels it means everything.

Fallada writes them in a way that the reader wonders what she might do in the same situation, because the Quangels are the “every man” of every society and no society is immune from the necessity to make a stand. The question of whether one stand is more right than another is an important thread in the book. The answer isn’t easy, not for the Quangels and not even for the Nazis who are searching for them – one inspector even kills himself with the thought that he has become Otto Quangel’s only disciple.

The starkest scene in the novel is when Otto is sharing a cell with a symphony conductor and they discuss what impact the actions that led them to their cells might have on the larger world and whether or not it was worth it. The conductor tells Otto that if there were men willing to assassinate the Nazi hierarchy the moment it came into power, then they wouldn’t be there in the first place. That they will die alone is not a condemnation of the bravery that led them to stand up, even if no one noticed they were standing.

Fallada wrote the novel in twenty-four days after being released from a Nazi mental hospital. The appendices in the book make it clear he was definitely not anti-Nazi and that makes his fictional accounting of a small act of defiance against a regime he tolerated, more than he supported it, all the more telling about what the average German might have felt and thought. It’s easy for the reader to imagine Fallada, and herself, finding the cards under the looming shadow of the Gestapo and being terrified at the stupidity of whoever left them.

But still, you want to be brave enough to do something.

Reviewed: “The Exiles Return” by Elisabeth de Waal

The Exiles ReturnFor me, as a lover of all things historical, wars are fascinating. As a lover of fiction, fiction based on reality, it’s the aftermath of the war that’s as fascinating as anything else.

This made the posthumous publication of Elisabeth de Waal’s THE EXILES RETURN the perfect choice for me. The blurb on the back cover even proclaimed the book to be similar to one of the most moving books I’ve read about the effects of war on the average man; EVERY MAN DIES ALONE by Hans Fallada. I was hooked by the blurb, I suppose you could say.

THE EXILES RETURN is the story of a handful of Austrians who return to their native land fifteen or so years after the end of the Second World War. One, Professor Kuno Adler, is a Jewish scientist who managed to escape to America before the Nazis caught him. Another is Theophil Kanakis, from a family of Austrian Greeks, who found incredible wealth in America before returning. Then there is Marie-Theres (or Resi as the Austrians insist on calling her, often to her dismay) who is the daughter of an Austrian-born princess who moved to America and delivered her daughter there.

Of the three, I found Adler the most compelling. He left behind a wife and daughters in America simply because he didn’t feel at home there. He wanted to be at home, in Austria. The place of his birth called to him and he couldn’t ignore the call. It took real bravery for him to give it all up a second time, not knowing where he could begin again. While the other characters in the story are more interconnected, even the non-exiles, Adler sort of kept to the periphery of it all. That made sense, given how he seemed the sort of man who would always be on the periphery of anything – always there but not always noticed.

Kanakis was the most pathetic, in a depressing sort of way. He was desperate to be what his immigrant family wasn’t while he grew up in Austria. He wanted to be rich, he wanted to have pretty friends, he wanted to know royalty, he wanted to be fawned over, he wanted to be adored. Money bought him most of those things, even royalty in the form of an utterly despicable young prince who everyone called Bimbo – an apt nickname if ever there was one, but Kanakis found out quickly that money is transitory and the things it buys don’t always stay as long as one might like.

Marie-Theres is the character I relate to most. She didn’t end up in Austria by choice. She’d have been perfectly happy to stay home with her books and records and vaguely ambiguous relationship with a college boy named Budd. With a social butterfly princess for a mother, that never would have worked out for her. She was packed off to her aunts where, speaking just enough German to get by, she got tragically caught up in the pull of a society still pulling itself together after being shattered by war. She never really stood a chance.

THE EXILES RETURN wasn’t published in de Waal’s lifetime. According the biography in the book and the introduction by Edmund de Waal, she wrote two novels in German and three in English. I, for one, hope they all end up published. This one drew me in and I have no doubt the others will.

(I received a copy of THE EXILES RETURN through a Goodreads First Reads giveaway. This review will be cross-posted there.)