These novels share a subject - civilian life under Nazi rule - but are utterly different. One, set in Berlin, was originally published in 1947, and is a powerfully impassioned first-hand indictment; the other, published this year, is set in the Czechoslovak state, and is an elegantly wrought work of retrospective artifice. Each, however, is magnificent.
Hans Fallada took his pseudonym from one of the Grimms' fairy tales. Fallada is the name of the talking horse that continues to tell the truth even when its decapitated head is nailed above the city gate. Fallada's own life was suitably macabre, involving drug addiction, a teenage suicide-pact-duel, incarceration in both mental asylums and prison, and alcoholism. His break-through as an author came in 1932, with a novel about a newly-married couple in the pre-war Depression; success led, however, to intense scrutiny by the authorities. Denunciations revealed that he had not joined the Party; his house was raided, and Fallada briefly imprisoned.
Alone in Berlin is a powerful portrayal of the corrosive paranoia engendered by such all-pervading tyranny. When every neighbour is a potential informer, the bonds of human trust are torn apart by selfishness and fear, until as the title puts it, Jeder stirbt für sich allein-"Every Man Dies Alone."
Primo Levi described this as "the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis." Readers should not however expect a tale of heartwarming derring-do. Alone in Berlin is completely, even remorselessly, gripping and tells the tale of a true-life campaign of resistance - but conducted through acts of defiance which are paltry, dogged and utterly doomed.