Penguin Classics, £20, 608pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz