One of the most memorable and powerful novels I have read in recent years is Hans Fallada‘s Every Man Dies Alone, 1947, in a 2009 translation by Michael Hoffman. (Also translated as  Alone in Berlin.  My review, here). It tells the story of a working-class couple in late middle-age who, on their own, create and distribute in buildings around Berlin, posters opposing the Nazis; incredibly dangerous work.  The tension of what they are doing is enough to hold our interest but Fallada adds a detective story to the mix.  Who is so mysteriously putting up posters, and how are they able to get away with it?  A conscientious detective, not a demonic Nazi, pursues the question.  His pursuit, the false leads,  the mounting clues, discovering who they are and bringing them in for questioning, as good detective stories do,  get us connected to the chase — in this case, not of criminals but of people we are

A Small Circus, is an earlier work by Fallada.  Published in 1931 as Farmers, Functionaries and Fireworks, it was his first to find any audience, though quickly overshadowed by his 1932 Little Man, Now What?Kleiner Mann – was nun?  The English translator of Small Circus as of Every Man, is the very able Michael Hoffman. Unlike the later novel, however,  A Small Circus does not attract or hold our attention as strongly.  Though there is an actual circus, which provides the starting point and metaphor for the themes of petty, vindictive corruption, we never get to it.  The editor of one of the town’s newspapers writes a dismissive review of the circus, not having seen it, as retribution for not buying advertising.  The larger circus of personalities (almost all male,) in 1929 Pomerania, of Nazis, Social Democrats, and Farmers’ League, push and pull, connive and bully for power.  While through the opened flap of the novel we see perhaps the goings-on in three-rings, it is not particularly entertaining, and only slightly revelatory.

A quick account of the plot would seem to make it interesting, however:  1929 Germany, the Great Depression sweeping the world and particularly upsetting Germany; the species-long quarrel over taxes and their collection; the rising Nazi party and the face-off with communists and social democrats; the peculiarities of small-town Philistines versus agriculture-heavy populations. The major action is a farmers’ league protest march through the town of Altholm,  in which a large and symbol laden flag incites reaction, leading to a small riot and following trial.  Quite a mix of ingredients for a heady brew.

Unfortunately not.

As one who has been reading novel after novel for four years about the onset and practice of war it seemed this story might be a chance to explore the beliefs, circumstances and actions of people who soon thereafter initiate the most destructive war in human history. Fallada, whose Every Man Dies Alone is a gripping invention of war-time resistance, based on a true story, seemed to be the man to do it: organizers on multiple sides whose decision-making, power grasping, character understanding were rich lodes for investigation; blame and counter-blame; events beyond control but controlling hearts and minds like termite swarms through the wood of government.  What a universe to explore, and so seldom done! (I can’t think of one great novel about organizing to prevent or to shorten a war.  Novels about organizing at all, are few and far between.  Here are some mentioned by folks, but I don’t see any with the nitty-gritty daily life, valiant efforts and unknown outcomes which organizers face. The film Erin Brokovich comes to mind, but there is no book, much less a novel, underlying it.)

A cast of seventy-seven characters in A Small Circus, from the police, the town government officials, business owners, farmers and assorted trouble makers, even though listed at the beginning, is a bit hard to keep track of — and some come with nick-names!

Fallada depends much too much on extended sections of dialog which, while possibly interesting to a sociologist, go on much too long, without adding plot-movement or character coloration.  The trial which follows the march and unrest goes on for pages, while the unrest itself is neither exciting nor detailed enough to give us a strong sense of the issues and the parties.

The length and breadth makes us miss some of the comedy Fallada seems to have intended.  It’s there:  a farmer whacking his own oxen to spook it and the bailiff trying to take it; a warning that a bomb will explode, meant to indicate a photographic bombshell but taken to be an actual bomb, leading to frantic activity;  the price inflation in the imagination of the accidental photographer for the photo, and even the sadly comic exchanges between husband and wife about a possible promotion when job-loss is more likely, are ingredients for old-time comedy.  The timing however, never.

As a reviewer at the time wrote, “It is no great work of art, but it is so terribly genuine that it’s frightening.”

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Since I am being unhappy about a book, which I hate being, let me add that Hoffman, however renowned a translator he is, deservedly, let some whoppers ride by.
It is 1929 in Germany, among mostly rural people.  How is it he has them with these phrases coming out of their mouths?
“Get your head around that.”
“He’s been around the block.”
“He has a screw loose.”
“He must have shit for brains.”
“What a piece of work.”

One of the hardest thing a translator has to do is transport not only the “meaning” of words but a sense of the whole — the time – not now, the place — not here, and the people — not us.  At the same time the time, place and people have to be connected internally, and we have to connect — the whole gestalt, as it were.  Somehow, sometimes, even the greats whiff when the chance is given.

 

For more favorable reviews of A Small Circus, here is Jake Kerridge, 2012, at the Telegraph, Ben Hutchinson at the Guardian, 2012 and Kirkus.

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By the way, Everyman Dies Alone is available as a film, Alone in Berlin (2016) with Emma Thompson in the female lead.