Monday, March 2, 2009

Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone: the "signal literary event of 2009. . . "

Okay, so sometimes this job really is glamourous. And sometimes, a great book really does get the attention (and now hopefully the readers) that it deserves.

I was in New York last week on vacation, but took the opportunity to tag along with a working colleague to visit several of the small publishers that I represent and admire the most - Melville House definitely being one of them. And while we were sitting around the table chatting, their publicist handed over an advance copy of yesterday's NY Times review of Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone, translated by Michael Hofmann - definitely one of my favourite books of the spring season. And so the champagne was brought out (not something that happens a lot in publishing these days) and the lengthy review that begins with, "A signal literary event of 2009 has occurred. . ." was read out in its entirety. It was so exciting to be there at that moment and it couldn't have happened to a nicer publisher. Stellar reviews have also been coming in from the U.K. (where the book is titled Alone In Berlin). And the Globe and Mail should publish their review this weekend.

It's amazing to me that it's taken more than sixty years for this novel to be translated into English; it was originally published in 1947, shortly after the author died. It follows the story of Otto and Anna Quangel - two ordinary Germans living in Berlin during the Second World War. When their only son is killed at the front, Otto decides on a simple, quiet form of resistance to the war. He painstakingly spends Sunday afternoons writing anti-Nazi slogans in beautiful calligraphy on postcards, which he then drops in various stairwells around Berlin. That's it. He doesn't stick around to see who picks up the postcards or what their reactions are; he just wants to tap into, and encourage what he hopes is a growing movement of opposition to Hitler and the Third Reich.
But many of these postcards are being turned in to Gestapo headquarters and turned over to Inspector Escherich. His mania for catching the postcard dropper is comparable to Javert's relentless pursuit of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. Escherich pins a red flag on his city map every time a new postcard is found, and as the cluster grows, he gets closer and closer to pinpointing the location of the Quangels. But this novel is not only the story of a deadly cat and mouse game. Escherich's spiralling, geographic obsession mirrors Fallada's narrative technique which begins with the descriptions and actions of the many tenants in the Quangels apartment building - all of whom will surround, intersect with, and ultimately affect the outcome of Otto and Anna's story. The complex and clever intricacies of plot are what give this novel its riveting suspense and are nothing short of astonishing, especially when one considers this 500 page book was written - somewhat in desperation - in only twenty-four days. Yet the writing is beautiful and haunting, and describes in minute detail the emotional rollercoaster of frustration, fear, anger and sometimes greed and selfishness, among ordinary German citizens who did not blindly follow the Nazi regime. It's a war story as gripping as any thriller, but full of unforgettable humanity, love, small doses of humour, and ultimately hope. If you only read one novel this year - I urge you to give this one a try. It has the narrative pacing and intrigue of a John Le Carré or Graham Greene novel, the moral complexity and ambiguity of Dosteovesky or Ian McEwan, and has the incredible backstory of Suite Française. It would make an absolutely terrific book club choice - perfect for men or women readers of all ages.

Fallada's fascinating life has the makings of a complicated novel in its own right. Every Man Dies Alone includes a biographical afterword by Fallada scholar Geoff Wilkes, as well as some background information on the real life couple that Otto and Anna were based on, including photographs from their Gestapo file. The book is also beautifully designed; the front endpapers are a map of Berlin with marked with key locations in the novel, while the back endpapers replicates Inspector Escherich's red flagged office map.

Kudos to Melville House for bringing this amazing novel to English readers. They have made a significant commitment to Fallada - they've also re-issued his previous novels The Drinker and Little Man, What Now? and more of his backlist is coming next year.
I have one galley left of Every Man Dies Alone and I'll send it out to a Canadian librarian (public, school or academic). Just send me an e-mail at with "Hans Fallada" in the subject line and include your work address. I'll accept e-mails until this Friday, March 6th at noon EST and then I'll do a draw from all the entries I receive. Good luck!
And if you're not a librarian, or don't win the galley - the book will be available in every bookstore this week, or go and put your holds on a library copy. You will not be disappointed; this is the one everyone is talking about. Go!

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