A Small Circus, By Hans Fallada, trans. Michael Hofmann

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The Independent Culture

In retrospect, it was unlikely that Hans Fallada (1893-1947) would ever make it to the age of 53; as his biographer Jenny Williams notes, "he lived more lives than one, clawing his way back each time... until his body was no longer able". Yet a botched suicide, numerous incarcerations and breakdowns later, Fallada sobered up enough to write the first of his many bestsellers, A Small Circus, published in Germany in 1931 as Bauern, Bonzen und Bomben, or "Peasants, Bigwigs and Bombs".

Drawing from his experiences as a young farmhand and later a reporter for a local newspaper in Neumünster, Fallada set his plot in the fictional town of Altholm, a blue-collar SPD stronghold ruled by the astute Mayor Gareis. The year is 1929 and editor Stuff, a "cynical old press warhorse", is on the lookout for scandal. He is soon presented with one: Altholm is to host a demonstration by dissatisfied farmers, increasingly crippled by taxes and foreclosures. Though the strike is sanctioned by Gareis, the farmers walk into a trap when the police assault Henning, the procession's flag-bearer.

Further scuffles, a boycott and a farce of a trial are all set into motion when Tredup, an ambitious reporter (and protégé of Stuff's) takes photographs of the farmers resisting officials sent to confiscate a pair of oxen belonging to one of their own. Caught between the bloodthirsty press and opportunists bent on manipulating their cause to their own ends, the farmers are the novel's real heroes.

Fallada's is a critical realism, but also avowedly humanist: "The farmer is big and broad, his wife is big and scraggy, but the children are broad and knobbly dwarves, silent dwarves with frightening hands. Sometimes the farmer has a horse, and sometimes he hasn't. Then wife and children are put before plough, harrow and potato drill... [Once], a year and a half ago, an enforcement official made it out to Stolpermünde-Abbau: since then there hasn't been a horse even some of the time. Back then, the farmer disappeared for a few months to cool down in prison. When he returned, he put a sign up on the wall that read: 'In Winter 1927, this farm was criminally robbed by militia and fiscal officials in the service of the German Republic'."

The poor get poorer, while the bigwigs carry on with their indifferent merry-making. This novel's genius, however, lies in Fallada's ability to reveal Altholm's corrupt underbelly – as well as to analyse the macabre game of musical chairs that was the Weimar Republic. Fallada gives us front-row seats to Germany's decade-long quest for a sacrificial scapegoat that culminated in the Nazi takeover.

But was it a takeover, we can hear him ask? The Nazis never won an outright majority in the Reichstag, and were never likely to; they simply cut a deal with the bureaucrats while the rest were preoccupied with petty vendettas. Remember, Gareis tells his Chief Adviser, "there's nothing worse than a hate-filled bureaucrat".

Two years after Alone in Berlin's runaway success, A Small Circus continues the Fallada revival that owes so much to the efforts of its translator, the poet Michael Hofmann – who, over 25 years, has gifted us with the crème of 20th-century German literature. Hofmann is masterful at capturing the mischievous bounce to Fallada's sentences, his voluble rawness. Besides a good deal of Fallada's works now being available in the US, there is more to look forward to: Penguin has reissued a revised edition of Jenny Williams's commendable More Lives Than One, and will follow in June with another novel, Once a Jailbird.

A broken man by the time of his death in East Berlin, Fallada had experienced the ignominy of Soviet authorities removing all copies of A Small Circus from public libraries because of its criticisms of the KPD [Communist Party]. Now that we can no longer claim a dearth of translations in our defence, it is time we read Fallada with the same sense of daring and urgency under which he wrote and lived.