Thursday, May 20, 2010

what more can you give or risk than a life?

It's been a long time since I stayed up all night reading a book, but that is exactly what I did the other day with Every Man Dies Alone. (ACHTUNG, that's an AMAZON link) by Hans Fallada (Don't worry, FTC, that was Wikipedia!).

I guess I'm a little twisted, or maybe I have been watching too much Daria on the box set. Either way, my light summer reading can best be described as "a five hundred page novel about living and resisting to Nazi rule." But wait!

The novel follows Otto and Anna Quangel's campaign of resistance against Hitler. The campaign is ineffectual - immature, even. They write and drop tiny postcards, often in rhyme, deriding Hitler.

Every Man Dies Alone is an intricately plotted, suspenseful ensemble novel. It's a weird novel. For one thing, it's enormous. The sheer scale of characters, points of view, and relationships is reminiscent of Dickens or Hugo. Yet it is informed with a postmodern sensibility.

What I hate about World War II literature and film produced after the war is that it's all so heavily weighted with its own importance. It's filled with wink-wink, nudge-nudge, look, HISTORY and salient details meant to remind you that, oh my god, IT IS OCCURRING DURING HISTORY. Radio broadcasts are abnormally loud; hairstyles are exaggerations; certain bombings become plot devices. That doesn't mean it's bad, necessarily, I am just annoyed by the excesses of devices that scream HISTORY!

Every Man Dies Alone, however, is different. Written in a 24-day frenzy right after the war, Fallada never lived to see its publication. He had spent most of the war in a Nazi insane asylum.

While the translation is a bit stilted, particularly the dialogue, I think in a certain sense it works for the novel because it captures the forgotten, archaic, or awkward turns of phrase used mid-century, though they aren't in the original language of the novel.

I loved this book. I didn't expect to. I was used to stories of WWII resistance involving parachutes and hiding people, not tiny guerilla campaigns whose effects linger in the form of the written word.

From Geoff Wilkes' afterword to the book: "[Anna] protests that this initiative is 'a bit small,' but he points out hat 'if they get wind of this, it'll cost us our lives,' prompting her to reflect that 'no one could risk more than his life,,' and that 'the main thing was, you fought back' (132)" (522). It's about futile resistance, and the question of what it takes to be defeated, and what victory means. That's why Every Man Dies Alone is today's recommendation.


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