It is June 1940. In a Berlin apartment, Old Persicke, a drink-sodden retired publican, and his ambitious Nazi sons celebrate the fall of France. Their quiet, middle-aged neighbours, Otto and Anna Quangel, have just learnt that their only child has been killed in that campaign. On the top floor, an elderly Jewish lady tries to make herself as inconspicuous as possible, while in the rear tenement, Emil Borkhausen, blackmailer and pimp, is sniffing around for a chance to turn a quick profit.
The Quangels' attempts to come to terms with their loss are described with such tact and delicacy that you know from the outset that you are in the hands of a major novelist. Rudolf Ditzen, who wrote under the nom de plume Hans Fallada, was a prolific author best known for his Depression-era novel Little Man, What Now?. Despite his international acclaim, his final work has only just been translated into English, more than 60 years after its first publication. Alone in Berlin was written, astonishingly, in less than a month in 1946; by the time it was published the following year, the author had died of a morphine overdose.
Fallada could have got out of Germany; as a man whose books had been banned by the Nazis, and who had spent time in prison and psychiatric institutions as a result of his drug addiction, he should have got out. But if his inability to tear himself away from his homeland took a fearsome personal toll, it also enabled him to convey with chilling precision the texture of life under fascism, the way that fear enters into every transaction and poisons every relationship.
As ever, it is the behaviour of ordinary people (perfectly captured by Michael Hofmann's spare, gritty, colloquial translation) that interests Fallada: there are few characters in high authority, no dramatic plot to overthrow the Reich; just petty betrayals and small acts of kindness or courage. Slowly, the taciturn, apolitical foreman Quangel develops a plan. Shamed by his wife's grief, he painstakingly writes out postcards condemning the regime, and drops them on the stairwells of office buildings around the city.
Fallada then adroitly shifts the focus to the detective assigned to track down the "hobgoblin", as the postcard writer has become known. As the laconic Inspector Escherich attempts to keep his superiors off his back while he fills a map of Berlin with little red flags to show where the cards have been dropped, we become enmeshed in a gripping police procedural, only to be chillingly reminded that our sleuth is working for the Gestapo. As the net closes around the Quangels, their friends and relatives are drawn relentlessly into the "conspiracy" by the authorities.
The original German title translates as "Everyone dies alone", and the phrase recurs like a refrain as the final part of the novel takes us down through the successive circles of a totalitarian hell, from the cells of Gestapo headquarters, through Moabit prison to the "People's Court" presided over by the psychopathic Roland Freisler, a real historical character who conducted the trials of the July 1944 conspirators.
In these closing chapters, the novel achieves real tragic grandeur, while its unsentimental depiction of quiet courage demonstrates that, even in the most hostile circumstances, human decency is never entirely extinguished.