Based on real events, Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada is an initially slow-moving book about one German man’s resistance to the Nazi regime in 1940s Berlin. The story picks up about a third of the way into the tale after introducing most of the characters in the story. Otto Quangel is the main character who writes a series of anti-Nazi postcards with the help of his wife Anna and leaves them dotted around Berlin. Gestapo inspector Escherich maps out the pattern of where the postcards have been left over the course of a few years and figures out the source location of the traitor to within a couple of apartment blocks.
While the leaving of postcards is a very small act of defiance the Quangel’s know that it will be met by the full force of the Nazi regime if they are caught. They are risking their lives to try and turn everyday Berliner’s attitudes against Hitler and his cronies. The claustrophobic atmosphere of distrust within the city where neighbour informs on neighbour and Jews disappear in the midnight hours is very well represented in the tale and perhaps because of the slow groundwork that was done by Fallada in the opening chapters it is easy to understand the motivations of all the characters, good and evil.
As you might imagine, the end of the story is not a happy one. The Quangel’s are caught and processed by the twisted judicial system of the Berlin under the influence of madmen. Their defiance against the system remains resolute throughout and their desperation to do the right thing by each other is immensely touching. Fallada does try to provide the reader with a hopeful ending by showing how one boy has managed to escape the cruel world of Berlin and start a new life in the country, but you can’t fail to be moved by the plight and ultimate demise of the main characters.
Hans Fallada is a pseudonym of Rudolf Ditzen (1893-1947) a German writer who wrote mainly in the ‘New Objectivity’ literary style, characterised by precise details and a journalistic veneration of the facts. He had a troubled relationship with the Nazi regime himself having taken the decision to stay in the city rather than fleeing. Alone in Berlin written so quickly after the end of WWII is seen by many as a clear denouncement of the regime.
Ryu Murakami’s Coin Locker Babies is the oftentimes surreal story of the coming of age of ‘brothers’ Hashi and Kiku, abandoned by their mothers as babies in coin lockers at a Tokyo train station. Raised together first at an orphange and then by the same foster parents the boys are initially inseparable. As the story progresses the differences between the pair become apparent, both in terms of sexuality and behavioural issues.
Hashi becomes a troubled pop star, who turns his back on his rent-boy beginnings and falls in love with and marries his female manager Neva. Hashi’s life is documented in a reality TV show in which the producers secretly search for his mother. Kiku becomes a pole vaulter and meets Anemone, a model who keeps a pet crocodile. Anemone wants to help Kiku find a toxic substance stock-piled in a secret location by the US Army called Datura.
In the ultimate episode of the reality TV show Hashi is presented with his mother, but it turns out that it is actually Kiku’s mother that’s been found. Kiku, trying to protect his brother, accidentally kills his mother and is sent to prison for the killing. However Kiku enrols into a naval course while in prison and during a typhoon manages to escape and go on the run with Anemone and some of his fellow inmates. The story culminates with Kiku retuning to Tokyo and releasing the Datura toxin on the unsuspecting residents. Hashi is poisoned and driven mad.
This was the first long-form book by Ryu Murakami that I have read and I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it. Much of what was described was grotesque, of a sexually violent nature towards women and with paper-thin portrayal of female tropes. I’m no snowflake but there’s only so much of this I can take until it just begins to annoy me. The motivations of Ryu Murakami’s characters always seem to default to the frankly psychotic with little wriggle room for any humanity to appear in his writing, as such it is no wonder that his namesake Haruki Murakami has been described as The Beatles and Ryu as the Rolling Stones (although I’d go so far as the say Marilyn Mansun).
On a lighter note Lee Child’s short story collection No Middle Name was a much faster read and an entertaining set of Jack Reacher tales based before, during and after his military service. It probably doesn’t stand up very well without the reader having experienced the other Reacher books, but is a definite must-read for fans.