I’ve got a novel for you.
It is not just a good read. It is a great work of art; everyone I gave it to reacted to it with unbridled enthusiasm. Everyone — and I mean everyone — said, without prompting, “I couldn’t put it down.”
After one friend read the novel, she sent me a New York Times review in which the writer, Liesl Schillinger, called it “a signal literary event of 2009,” and that “if publishers had been more vigilant, it could have been a signal literary event in any of the last 60 years.”
How did we miss reading or hearing about Hans Fallada’s “Everyman Dies Alone”? Maybe it’s because it was published in 1947 in what once was called East Germany? Perhaps it got lost in the aftermath of war. Maybe its lack of prominence results from the fact that Fallada was considered a lunatic and that his real name was Rudolf Ditzen.
Available in English
Whatever the reason, the arrival of this undiscovered classic is enhanced by a stellar translation by Michael Hoffman. It is, I might add, the first time the novel is available in English.
It is accessible, gripping, terrifying, suspenseful and as fine a war thriller as you will ever read. What qualifies “Every Man Dies Alone” as a great work is its insight into the human condition. That the novel is based on the lives of real people (Otto and Elise Hampel) gives it a ring of authenticity.
Set in wartime Berlin, Fallada’s narrative takes us first to the home of Otto and Anna Quangel. They are dutiful citizens who could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be labeled as rabble rousers. Shortly after we meet them, a telegraph arrives. Their only son has been killed in battle. At first, Otto takes the news with equanimity. Then something gets to him; almost a delayed reaction.
Though he not schooled as a pacifist or communist, something impels him to write and surreptitiously drop off post cards all over Berlin. They show up in odd places. Simple cards in block letters, the first of which reads: “Mother! The Fuhrer has murdered my son. Mother! The Fuhrer will murder your son too; he will not stop till he has brought sorrow to every home in the world.”
This modest act of disobedience is at the heart of all rebellion, or perhaps more accurately, it’s a credible observation that not all rebellions are loud and violently angry. Think of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, who one day tells his superiors, “I prefer not to.”
Without fanfare, Otto is responding to a moral imperative. He has now become a political dissident who is driving the Gestapo crazy. Inspector Escherich, a memorable character if there ever was one, is charged with finding the scoundrel. The author gets into the inspector’s mind and soul with the skill of a Dostoevsky.
Fallada’s insights into human psychology are classic, reminding us of Gide’s dictum that “a mind incapable of indignation and revolt is a mind without value.”
So too is his handling of dialogue and rich insights into even the most minor of characters. It’s an amazing feat, considering that Fallada wrote the book in a mere 24 days. You may conclude this is a man working at white heat.
Even though many of Fallada’s insights are profound, the novel remains a genuine thriller. The plot is as accessible as that of any current best seller, and I feel confident that most readers will find it a superior read. Put it this way: Judged on this one novel, Tom Clancy is no Hans Fallada.
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