Monday, 8 November 2010
Alone in Berlin
George Grösz,Pimps of Death 1919
Eventually I got round to Hans Fallada's book, though C had beaten me to it. I had other things to read and stuff to write. But in between all that I consumed it in three days or so.
It is a marvellous book - from most points of view. As a study of unlikely, unspectacular conscience and courage in action it is remarkable. The small and helpless are faced by a terrible political machine but they persist. As a study of character in its two central figure it is brilliant. Out of very little Fallada builds not only two complete human beings, but beings with extraordinary yet believable fortitude. It is also a visionary book as a study in complicity and evil. The society at the heart of it is examined with a pitiless gaze. One of the terms used about it in press reviews is 'redemptive'. Yes, it is, and, again, clearly, pitilessly so. There is almost nothing to provoke redemption and that, precisely, is the point.
The story is simple and well known. At the most triumphant moment of nazism, the fall of France, an elderly couple get an official letter to inform them that their son has died in action. The news all but destroys the relationship between the taciturn, apparently apolitical foreman carpenter and his anti-Nazi but undemonstrative wife. Then he gets an idea. He will do nothing more than write postcards of protest and plant them in various public places for people to find. This is a mortally dangerous thing to do but it brings the couple together in a warm human bond. A wily old police inspector, a tool of the nazi state, is put on the case The other people in the old people's flat include an old retired judge, a crook, the family of a young SS officer and an elderly Jewish woman whose husband has already been taken away. That's all you need to know. Events proceed from there.
I said I thought the book was visionary. In fact it is a fable about conscience and courage, albeit a fable set in very much a real place. It is not full psychological realism since only the central couple, and perhaps the police inspector, are drawn at depth. Others are more figures, emblems, screaming caricatures. None of the nazis can do anything but scream or yell, they are all stupid drunken sadists of endless malignity. I accept that nazism was endlessly malign, and that people did behave in intensely malign fashion. I rather miss knowing what made people nazis, especially the more intelligent, more sensitive among them. Because they must have existed - not at the ideological sharp end of course, not in the Gestapo or the SS perhaps, but in the party. People like Gunter Grass perhaps, or our present pope.
Evil in the book is a cloud that has descended on a nation, a cloud that drives everyone one way. It has no development section.
That is not a shortcoming in the book. The book has no interest in that. It was written in twenty-four days from within the cloud. There was no time to ask how the monstrous sadist became so monstrous, so unremittingly evil. You just had to deal with it and decide how to face it. The state was given. The state becomes the language.
So it is only my own curiosity. I very much want to know what might turn a gentle, well-disposed, intelligent human being into a moronic death machine. Let us say Siddique Khan, for example.
Wait, I can guess. Human emotions are not subject to the names we happen to have given them. They will not abide such clear definition. Gentleness and compassion are not entirely distinct from self-pity and fury. They are all in the cloud together. It is the cloud one must look into.
Fallada is looking at its effect, not its structure. What else was he to do?