Welcome to the book blog of writer and creative writing tutor, Diane Paul.

Thanks to the publishers and kind PR people who send me books and releases about their clients' books for review. Press releases and review copies of fiction and non-fiction are always welcome. (No sci-fi, fantasy or erotica please.)

Due to the barrage of requests from self-published authors for reviews, I'm unable to deal with them all, although I'm sometimes drawn to non-fiction for the subject matter. And because I love print books, the smell, the touch of the paper and the sight of the words, I don't have an electronic reader or review e-books.

E-mail to: bookblogforbookworms@keywordeditorial.com for the postal address.

My writing website: http://www.keywordeditorial.com/

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Alone in Berlin a revelation

I abandoned the blog recently to work on the second edition of my book about Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. At night, I read Michael Hofmann's translation from the German of Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin, not knowing what to expect except another book about the Nazis. It was a revelation.

Alone in Berlin

The author Primo Levi declared it 'the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis'. I'm tired of the out-of-context extracts quoted about books we find plastered all over the covers and endpapers. 'The most hilarious book ever written' rarely has me falling off my seat and '...it scared me half out of my wits' leaves me looking for the missing pages they must have had that I didn't. I wish publishers would stop it. It's so misleading.

Levi was right though. I haven't read all the books ever written about German resistance to the Nazis, so I'm not in a position to comment but it was certainly the best of its kind that I've read, despite its tendency to slip in and out of past and present tense in the same paragraph. Whether that was the author's intention or something to do with the translation, I have no idea but it was very irritating.

For someone with a plethora of distant cousins and great aunts and uncles who were murdered by the Nazis in Austria and Lithuania, German equates with Nazi; it's hard to separate the two. Just changing planes at Dusseldorf was repugnant in 1959. It never occurred to me that there were German people who resisted the Nazi regime, probably because I was in denial from years of absorbing Nazi horror stories from a different perspective and the discovery of a Daily Mail picture book called Lest We Forget that I found on my parents' bookshelf when I was six. I never forgot.

So for the first time, I discovered what fear does to people, how the tyrant and bully controls the masses, with hypnotic rhetoric, threats, physical violence and murder. It could happen any time, any place, one madman gains control and you have mass cowardice that has neighbour spying on neighbour in an effort to please the gangs of vicious thugs that follow the psychotic leader and save their own skins.

There were those though who followed their personal convictions, who were not Nazi sympathisers, who were committed to helping those in need, who didn't consider that they were acting heroically, who saw Jews as people in need of help rather than as Jews, and who often acted spontaneously to help them. Yad Vashem, the Jewish holocaust remembrance organisation calls them the Righteous Gentiles and gave over 21 thousand of them official recognition after the war. Most of them were Polish, the rest eastern European. Germans were a bit thin on the ground.

True story

There was resistance to the Nazis at all levels of society but to no effect. Alone in Berlin is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel and this story was taken from information in their files. They were Hitler's followers until 1940 and they dropped postcards to warn the Germans against the Fuhrer and his regime. In Fallada's story, they are represented by the fictional Otto and Anna Quangel. When their only son is killed fighting during the French invasion, they turn against the regime. Otto writes and drops his propaganda postcards in buildings in and around Berlin, aided and abetted by his wife. But people are too afraid to read them or to be found with one in case they are arrested for originating them, so they hand them in to the police immediately. The Quangels are caught in the end and sadly, their arrest results in a ripple of interest in others associated with them, however innocent they may be, including their late son's girlfriend, who commits suicide in prison.

The book is peopled with fascinating characters from drunken Hitler supporters to down and out ne'er-do'wells, all bent on self-preservation, no matter what the cost to others. Even the police inspector's life depends on him bringing someone, anyone, to justice. The Quangels stand out among them as two sober individuals among an ocean of drunks, seeing clearly where others peer through the mist.

This is one of the most fascinating books I've read for a while and, although it has a sad ending and contains material that doesn't always digest well, it's a brilliant historical document, a rivetting read, full of action and incident and - a revelation.

It's published by Penguin and translated from the original German novel, Every Man Dies Alone. You can read about the author, Hans Fallada on http://www.hansfallada.com/

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