"This never-before-translated masterpiece - by a heroic best-selling writer who saw his life crumble under the Nazis - is based on a true story." "It presents a richly detailed portrait of life in Berlin under the Nazis and tells the sweeping saga of one working-class couple who decides to take a stand when their only son is killed at the front. With nothing but their grief and each other against the awesome power of the Reich, they launch a simple, clandestine resistance campaign that soon has an enraged Gestapo on their trail, and a world of terrified neighbors and cynical snitches ready to turn them in." In the end, it's more than an edge-of-your-seat thriller, more than a moving romance, even more than literature of the highest order - it's a deeply stirring story of two people standing up for what's right, and each other.I have tried for over a week to review this book. Numerous attempts were made, but all lackluster. Primo Levi said that this was "the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis." Alan Furst states that EMDA "is one of the most extraordinary and compelling novels ever written about World War II. Ever." After reading this, you start to think that this books needs a review to do it justice. (A great review by Furst can be found here.)
When it comes to WWII era novels, I've never thought about reading from a German's point of view. Do many exist? When I came across this book in the grocery store (yes, the GROCERY store--they had a big 40% off bestsellers bin), and read the short synopsis, I was hooked. This 509 page novel made its way home with me between a loaf of bread and a pound of butter.
I started it soon after. Right away, I found myself very confused with the numerous characters thrown at you in the first pages. I do most of my reading before bed, so this confusion could be attributed to my exhaustion. Soon I had everyone figured out and was on a great literary journey.
The story is that of the Quangels, Otto and Anna, and their resistance to the Nazi regime. The characters are based off of the real lives of Otta and Elise Hampel, a couple who decided to stand up to the Nazis by placing postcards with anti-Hitler slogans throughout Berlin. If found out, this would be a death sentence to all who is involved.
I was introduced to so many people in the early pages of the novel that I was not sure who were the post card writers in the novel. The Quangels seem to be an apathetic couple, just going about their lives as best as that can in Nazi-ruled Germany. The death of their only son, who was serving in the German military changed that. I tried to guess early on as the writings and dropping of postcards do not start right away. There's so much more than Fallada wants to show us.
I love how Fallada introduces us to German society through his characters that reside in one apartment building. The Nazis, the Jew, the apathetic couple (the Quangels), a very self-obsessed man, a money hungry louse and an invisible judge. Yet they all feared. And fear encompassed everyone in Germany. No one could escape it. Not even the reader. Fallada made sure of that. I didn't know if I wanted to put the book down because I felt anxiety or keep reading as fast as I could to see what happens next. Fallada brought us to Nazi German and let the reader experience what it must have been like for the people who lived in constant fear. Fear that you will say the wrong thing or do something that could be perceived as anti-state. The anxiety that citizens felt, wondering if their co-worker, their neighbor, was a spy. It was very real.
But you still cheer on the good guys because you want to see them win. Even if you know how it will end.
And if you've seen Sophie Scholl, or read about her, then you know. (I recommend this movie, too.)
Fallada wrote and extraordinary novel, and the fact that he lived through it shows. He seems to be a colorful character as his biography at the end of the book indicates. The novel also has copies of some of the postcards, pictures of the Hampels as well as arrest reports. A very, very interesting read that left be thinking about it constantly when I wasn't reading and for days after.
This gem was finally translated into English in 2009, after being published in 1947. It makes me wonder how many other magnificent works are out there in other languages, waiting to be translated.
Title: Every Man Dies Alone
Author: Hans Fallada
Publication Year: 2009 translated (1947)
Publisher: Melville House
Source: Personal copy