Monday, 21 March 2016

Book of the Month: A Small Circus (Hans Fallada)

Michael Hoffman’s 2009 translation of Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin was a great success (the novel sold more than 350,000 copies in the UK alone).

Inevitably, the success of Alone in Berlin led to more works of Fallada (real name Rudolf Ditzen) being released for the consumption of the Western readers among whom, it would appear, there is an appetite for European novels about totalitarianism.

A Small Circus, published in the UK in its (excellent) English translation by Michael Hoffman, was Fallada’s debut novel. He submitted it for publication in 1930 and the novel was published the following year.

According to the foreword (by Jenny Williams), A Small Circus, like many other debut novels, was inspired by Fallada’s experience as a journalist working for a provincial newspaper in the small German town of Neumunster in the district of Schleswig-Holstein. Fallada worked for the local newspaper for two years and was an observer of not only the workings, machinations and petty politicking of provincial journalism but also of the political situation developing in Germany which would bring an end to the Weimer Republic and pave way to the rise of Hitler.

All of which is described in with great bravura in the blackly funny A Small Circus.  

Neumunster becomes Altholm in A Small Circus. It is the late 1920s and the German economy, burdened by the reparation demands of the Treaty of Versailles, is in a freefall. The democratic Weimer Republic is on its knees. In Altholm the Social Democrats (SDP) are in power, led by its frighteningly capable, larger than life, mayor Gareis. In his capacity as a mayor Gareis is also the Chief Commissioner of Police. Gareis is accountable and answerable to the district president Temborius who is based in Stolpe (another fictional town). Gareis’s work is cut out. He has to steer his way through what he sees as obstacles put in his path by other political parties in the region including the Democrats, the Communists, the right-wing Volkspartei, the Reichswirtschaftspartei which represents the interest of the middle-classes, and last but not least the National Socialists who are on the rise with their populist, xenophobic agenda. Then there are the local newspaper such as the right wing Chronicle with its menacing and devilishly cunning chief reporter Stuff who feels obliged to oppose tooth and nail every policy of SDP, the Volkszeitung which supports the SDP, and the highest-selling News which considers itself to be holding the centre position.

The situation in the district of Stolpe is like that which will be described as prevailing in Austria on the eve of its annexation to Germany a few years later: serious but not desperate. However it is about to become desperate for the ruling SDP. The farmers in the region, most of whom not rich and land-owning but small and independent, are seething with rage at what they see as very unfair taxation by the Republic, which they have come increasingly to view as anti-farmers and only having the interests of the working-class at its heart. The farmers form their own movement, Bauernschaft (based on the real life Landvolk movement formed by the farmers in Schleswig-Holstein in the 1920s, bitterly opposed to the taxation of SDP). The proverbial last straw that breaks the camel’s back is an attempt by a couple of hapless employees of the tax department to confiscate the oxen of farmers who are unable (unwilling as the administration sees it) pay the taxes. The tax officials are driven away but the identities of the assailants is captured in a photograph taken by Tredup, the perennially impoverished advertising manager of the Chronicle and a freelance photographer. Tredup sells the photographs to the district administration in Stolpe and Reimers, the headman of the village of Gramzow where the trouble with the tax-officials began, is arrested and thrown in jail in Altholm. The farmers’ movement decides to organize a huge demonstration in Altholm. Gareis, the mayor of Altholm, much to the displeasure of the district president Timborius, decides to give permission for the demonstration to go ahead. Once the decision is made all sorts of characters and forces swing into action vying with each other to add more spice into what is already promising to be a vindaloo. These include in no particular order the Fourth Estate, factions within the farmers’ movement, the district administration in Stolpe, and some fly-by-night characters who have no personal interest or stake in the local affairs in Altholm other than to have a damn good ruckus. No one—including mayor Gareis—is a saint, here, and every trick in the book—including threats, calumny, misinformation, blackmail, bribing—is employed by all the parties. The demonstration duly takes place on the due date and is dealt with unusual severity by the Altholm police force, inexpertly led by the bungling and bombastic Frerksen, the commander of the Altholm police force, who also happens to be a member of the SDP and probably owes his position to him being a lackey—as is accused in the right-wing Chronicle—of mayor Gareis.

The demonstration is a fiasco. To compound the problems for the Altholm businessmen and bourgeoisie the farmers in the region embark upon an unofficial boycott of the town which hurts the already ailing economy of the town. It is very clear that someone is going to have to take the blame for it; heads are going to have to roll. The question is: who would that person be. The person who, for many, is for the high jump is mayor Gareis, who makes it clear that try as he might he is simply unable to comprehend how it was his fault and the chances of him relinquishing the post willingly were less than slim. Frerksen is in trouble, too, for his inept handling of the farmers’ demonstration. District president Timborius’s role in the whole affair is also of interest partly because of his insistence that the farmers’ demonstration should not be permitted under any circumstances but also because of the ‘secret order’ he is supposed to have sent to Gareis on the eve of the demonstration about which the Altholm mayor is acting more coy than a Bollywood virgin looking at her beau with trembling lips,  knowing fully well what is it that is on his mind but acting ignorant all the same. The state brings charges against the torchbearers of the Altholm demonstration. This gives rise to a fresh round of back-stabbing, skulduggery and perjury in which all parties involved come out with flying colours.

When this sprawling, humongous novel of almost 600 pages draws to a close no one, unsurprisingly, emerges as a winner; and most characters get their just desserts.

A Small Circus is anything but small in its scope and the ambition of its author. The cast of characters populating it is extensive. A list given at the beginning of the novel of all the ‘dramatic personae’ that, in small or big way, propel the story further, is very handy, but despite that it tends to get a tad confusing at times. This is (I think) because of the sheer number of characters each and every one of them is up to some or the other shenanigan, but also because of the way the story is told so that the links amongst different strands of the story are not always apparent. The plot is revealed to the reader piecemeal, in snatches and, if you find yourself, from time to time, going back in the story trying to decipher the significance of a comment, say, you wouldn’t be the only one.

A Small Circus, on the face of it, depicts German life in a small rural town at a particular period in the history of Germany in twentieth century. The novel, several decades after it was first published is, still, relevant, not just because what we now know of the events in Germany in the 1930s, the rise of National Socialists and subsequent tragedy, which the novel—in its realistic and, frankly, terrifying, portrayal of Germany’s implosion—so superbly helps the reader to gain an insight into, but also because Fallada touches themes in the novel that ring true even now: the corruption in politics, sycophancy, the poor becoming poorer and rich richer.

A great pleasure of reading A Small Circus is the way the story progresses, which is mostly in dialogues, which, for the most part are quirky, idiosyncratic and funny. The credit for this should also go to the translator Michael Hoffman.

A Small Circus is an impressive novel, a caustic and piercing commentary on the greed, treachery and petty bickering that made Hitler’s dramatic rise to power possible.

Hans Fallada, according to various biographies I read of him on the Net, was a tortured soul. He died a broken man in 1947, of morphine overdose, at a relatively young age of 53, in East Berlin, East Germany where the Soviets had banned A Small Circus because of Fallada’s less than flattering description of the Communists in the novel. The success of Alone in Berlin (which heralded the revival of his works) and subsequent novels, in the West may have come too late for their creator, but it is still a deserving recognition of the genius.