Thrillers aren’t normally my cup of tea, and I’d never heard of this book till I met someone reading it on the Eurostar last summer: he claimed it was brilliant. Later my wife began it, then stopped, saying it was too tense! I put it to one side – not really wanting the stress, and hating books that just involve turning the page to find out who did it, or would they get away with it. This is a very unusual kind of thriller though.
Set in Berlin in the early years of WW2, it tells the story of an ill-educated, and possibly ill-matched working class couple. After they receive the telegram about their son’s death, they begin to leave postcards in public buildings. These are not literate people: the writing of each card requires effort, and each is placed with care: “Mother, the Fuhrer has murdered my son…” the first one begins.
Fallada shows a grim picture of wartime Germany filled with petty crooks, gamblers and drunks: betrayal is everywhere, fear fills the streets, adultery and domestic violence is rife. For Fallada these Germans, lacking courage, have ceded control to a relentless tyranny; they are its victims, and its cause. The narrative reveals the shocking violence, cruelty and deprivation of wartime Germany. Where cruelty is absent the void is filled by selfish, inward looking apathy. The opening chapters show us this neutered Germany; it is grim and horrifying. Later we see the machinery of state wheel into action – the self serving bureaucracy, the sadistic brutality of the police, the joke that is The People’s Court: this last section made me laugh out loud.
It is often ham-fisted – sarcastic rather than ironical – unsubtle in its presentation of character – often there are no redeeming features to these people, though the central character is more fully drawn. Nevertheless this is a great and in my experience, a unique read.
You should try it.