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Book Review: Alone in Berlin (Hans Fallada)

THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST UNFORGETTABLE BOOKS THAT I HAVE READ RECENTLY. Having read Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise, which describes life in France after the German invasion in June 1940, I was struck by how Fallada shows the Gestapo in Berlin obsessively celebrating the French defeat. In this sense, Alone in Berlin is almost a mirror image of life in Berlin within the same time frame as Nemirovsky’s book.

Such is Fallada’s depiction of Berlin that one is left with a sense of the city and its denizens being under a constant grey mantle. The fog is both physical and mental. The plot concerns the reactions of ordinary Germans to the Nazification of everyday life. The perfectly ordinary Otto Quangel, with his ‘birdlike face, thin lips and cold eyes’, is an unlikely hero. His son, also called Otto, is killed in the war and Anna, his wife, in a fit of grief, flings the accusation, ‘. . . that’s what you get from your wretched war, you and that Fuhrer of yours!’ Stung by this, Otto is driven to express his disgust at the regime by leaving anti-war and anti-Hitler postcards scattered around significant buildings in Berlin where people will find them. He knows that he is courting death and is initially reluctant to involve Anna. However, Anna is determined that people should be brought to their senses and persuaded to repudiate the Fuhrer.

The reaction to Otto’s cards is utter terror, and virtually all the cards are handed in to the police as people fear that any link to these will brand them as enemies of the regime. For about two years, Otto and Anna succeed in evading the authorities. The Berlin police nickname the anonymous postcard writer, the ‘Hobgoblin’. Eventually, the failure of the inspector, Escherich, to track down the ‘Hobgoblin’ attracts the attention of the local Gestapo.

Escherich uses pins on a map of Berlin to mark each find of the postcards. The hunt thus forms the armature of the story, around which various other fates are twisted, and most end up facing torture and death, leading to the question ‘was it worth it?’ Fallada, at the end of the book, suggests that one such moral step taken in an ocean of evil spiritually cleanses, even if it is physically futile, but he is subtle enough to let the reader make up their own opinion.

The book is based on a real case, and the afterword provides documentary samples of the real postcard writer and his wife, and some of the cards, and details their fate. Fallada was one of the very few German writers of stature (he was internationally famous for the book Little Man, What Now?, which was made into a Hollywood film) who stayed in Nazi Germany throughout the war and could thus take in the whole atmosphere of the Third Reich. Alone in Berlin (whose German title translates as Everyone Dies Alone) is thus an early work of ‘faction’, in which the border between reportage and fiction is breached. There are even videos of the historical prototype for the judge at the Quangel’s trial available on the net

This makes one look at the book in a different way and to say that was how it must have been, rather than regarding it as historical fiction. Given the background the book is unremittingly harrowing. A host of characters of various degrees of vileness is leavened by a handful of good people, such as the retired Judge Fromm, a neighbour of Otto and Anna, who hides the Jewish widow, Frau Rosenthal, in his flat. He also gives the condemned Otto and Anna suicide ampoules of cyanide – which both decide not to use until the end.

Central to the narrative is the fate of Inspector Escherich, whose attempts to find the perpetrator initially fail. The Gestapo, angered by his failure, imprison and torture Escherich. His replacement also fails and Escherich is reinstated to complete the ‘Hobgoblin’ mission. When Escherich finally catches Otto and confronts him, he realises the futility of the Nazi myth and kills himself – his one redeeming act. The Persicke family, also neighbours of Otto and Anna, are a chilling embodiment of the Nazi ethos. Baldur, the sixteen-year old son, is a member of the Hitler Jugend and openly says,’We all want to get ahead in life, and how are we going to do it except through the Party? . . . we should follow the Fuhrer’s lead and make mugs of people, put on friendly expressions and then, when no one senses any threat, take care of business.’ This rhetoric has a sinister culmination in two instances. The first is when the Persickes decide to torture the Jewish widow, Frau Rosenthal, and ransack her flat. The second instance involves Baldur banishing his alcoholic father to a medical centre where patients are used in experiments. He orders the doctor in charge to inject his father with a chemical, which kills him.

Rather than individual characters, however powerfully drawn, it is the appalling atmosphere of a totalitarian state, where everyone is prepared to rat on everyone else to save their skin and the apparent futility of any resistance to the all-pervading evil, that haunts the reader long after the last page has been turned.

— Golden Langur

Poland in Reality


If the best things in life are free, the most interesting attractions in Poland cost nothing, or very little. The various Polish governments believe that everyone should be able to see the abomination of the death camps free of charge. Whilst this is not exactly a fun day out, Auschwitz is something everyone should experience. By and large, the grim red brick buildings are much as they were, the treads of their stone steps worn down by innumerable feet. Photographs of beautiful Jewish children follow you as you pass displays of suitcases, pots and pans and a mound of human hair.

Less than an hour away is Poland’s only tourist trap for overseas visitors – Krakow, a historic city of splendid buildings, sadly blackened through proximity to the Nowa Huta steelworks. However, as tourist traps go, it’s bustling, rather than heaving. Rynek Square is a good place from which to watch the world go by with a quiet glass of wodka. Kazimierz, the old Jewish ghetto, is well worth seeing, either on foot for free, or (if you don’t mind coughing up occasionally) from a rickshaw listening to the driver’s commentary in fluent English. Follow the main road south, slowly, through one traffic hold-up after another, and you will reach the white–peaked Tatra Mountains, the last hurrah of the Alps, which are truly stunning, but Zacopane, the former Commie playground, is only exciting if you enjoy log cabins. The local cafe chain, trading under the name of ‘Goodbye Mr Lenin’, says it all.

The Baltic Coast is where the Poles take their seaside holidays, so be aware that this area is pricier and gets booked up before touristy Krakow. With its three- and four-storey red-brick buildings with gabled roofs, Gdansk, one of the many cities dubbed ‘Venice of the North’, is reminiscent of Amsterdam, although the ultra-modern concrete and glass waterfront is starting to look like London Docklands. Do visit The ‘Roads to Freedom’ Exhibition, featuring the independent trade union Solidarity: for an admission charge of just 6 zlotys (about £1.50), it contains more ‘primary sources’ than any other museum about the Communist era – and, despite what several websites say, it isn’t closed.

The British bucket airlines operate several flights a day to Polish cities, with prices starting at £10.99 one way. Hotels vary in price, the cheapest (when we went in 2008) being £35 for rooms in Krakow. One small caveat – Polska 2012. If you want to see Poland, not watch football, avoid dates between 8 June and 1 July.

— Charlie Britten

Book Review: Shelter (Frances Greenslade)

I SEEM TO HAVE A THING FOR BOOKS WITH A WOMAN’S HEART that use orphan-like characters in poor and crumbling habitats. If there are small practical points of magic or folklore interwoven, then we’ll be friends for life. Shelter, by Frances Greenslade, can now be added to this list.

Shelter, set in British Colombia, Canada, is Irene’s story. Although she is absent for a good portion of the book, everything leads to her. Using the voice of her youngest daughter, Maggie, it is ultimately a simple story told through the confused eyes of a child; a story of life getting between members of a family, resulting in separation, and how it becomes an awful mystery to Maggie and her elder sister, Jenny, and the mist that lingers as they grow up until they have to know the truth.

Maggie is an ideal narrator. As the youngest, her sense of feeling wrapped in the family – and desperately wanting it to stay intact – is an interesting point from which to tell the story. She is fragile as a daughter but with a strong heart.

Maggie’s sister, Jenny, is her perfect accompaniment with a very likable and deeply drawn character full of optimism and girlishness. In fact, you get a feeling she is a character that the author knows particularly well. This is especially conveyed through the idea that Jenny would like to be a writer, as she has certainly been given the wit and charm that make her good at it. As she grows up, Jenny appears to move on with her life more than Maggie, having her own teenage girl problems to think about. Maggie is much more anchored on the separation of her family and the past, but only when Jenny hits a wall, and realises that she isn’t ready to stand alone after all, does she really follow Maggie into the hurt that has come from the large hole in the family.

Greenslade says that the inspiration for this story came from the early loss of her own mother and how that made her feel. She says that she was able to write about this subject in a more balanced way now she is older and a mother herself, and in the book you do feel a sense of compassion develop for Irene from Maggie. More than anything she wants to understand where she has gone and who she really is. As Maggie starts to realise that her mother is a whole person of her own, separate of her children, the mystery begins to unravel.

The Canadian landscape and its mythology features as quite a prominent part of this story and the descriptions were knowledgably written. A real flood of imagery comes through the pages, and it is very much this family’s perception of their surroundings and what the land means to them, how they use it, not just any old Canada that could be lived in by just anyone. This brings the reader closer to the personal ways of this little broken family.

A lot seems to happen in this book, and fast. A hundred pages go by, the writing laced with femininity, and we’ve been through so much. This doesn’t in any way feel rushed though. The sentence structures are beautiful and intricately delicate while stamping within the reader a complete faith in the author. You have time to look around and feel at home in the scenery; I like a book where I can get to know intimate details like what colour the tea towels are, the smell of the curtains and how the air feels in British Colombia on an autumn morning, as well as keeping the story at a riveting pace. I read this book really quickly, flying through the pages, intrigued by the mystery and then holding my breath for the perfect end, the only end there could be.

— Clare Brierley

Deities and Nectar of Wisdom: Avatars and Signatures

THIS TOPIC IS INSPIRED BY DISCUSSIONS IN THE FORUM about the use of pseudonyms by members of Writers’ Dock. The use of avatars is closely linked to this and it seems logical to examine this in some detail.
Descent in Human Form:

Avatar is a Sanskrit word rooted in the Hindu concept of ‘descent of a deity into the human world’. The deity is an enlightened being who, out of compassion, returns in flesh to save mankind. Thus, an avatar is an incarnation of the sacred. One of the main Hindu deities who returns in his avatar form is Vishnu. He has eight different avatars and Krishna is the most popular of his avatars. Krishna (the ‘blue-skinned one’) is often depicted in Hindu iconography as the archetypal infant, lover (the flute being his instrument of enchantment), and the wise prince (in the Bhagavad Gita and Mahabharata).

It is interesting that another major computer term, ‘icon’, also derives from a fleshly representation of a divine being in Christian iconography.
From the Heavens to the Computer:

According to the Wiki:

The use of the term avatar for a computer representation of a user dates back to at least as far back as 1985, when it was used as the name for the player character in the Ultima computer games. The Ultima games started out in 1981, but it was in Ultima IV (1985), that the term ‘Avatar’ was introduced. To become the ‘Avatar’ was the goal of Ultima IV. The later games assumed that you were the Avatar and ‘Avatar’ was the player’s visual on-screen in-game persona. The on-screen representation could be customized in appearance. Later, the term ‘avatar’ was used by the designers of the pen and paper role-playing game, Shadowrun (1989), as well as in the online role-playing game, Habitat (1987).

Online Representation:

It seems this use of avatar takes on a more personal role when we use avatars to represent ourselves on a site like this. There are numerous forums dedicated to the creation of online avatars.
Nectar of Wisdom: Signatures:

Together with the avatars, we also use signature or what the Wiki calls signature block:

It is common practice for a signature block to consist of one or more lines containing some brief information on the author of the message . . . A quotation is often included (occasionally automatically generated by such tools as fortune or an ASCII picture). Strict rules of capitalization are not followed.

What inspires your choice of avatar and signature?

Do you have more than one avatar?

Do you change your avatar and signature from time to time? What factors influence this?

— Golden Langur

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