Tales From the Underworld

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(389)

There has been new interest in Hans Fallada following the English publication of much of his work. He is best known for his 1946 novel Alone in Berlin, first translated into English in 2009, which was described by novelist and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi as the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis. Based on the true story of an elderly working class couple who resisted the Nazis in wartime Berlin, this was one of the first German anti-Nazi novels to be published after the war.

Tales From the Underworld is a new collection of short stories spanning Fallada's career, from his first published story in 1925 to one written shortly before his death in 1946.

This was a dark and turbulent period in German history, from the years of the Weimar Republic, marked by political instability, hyper-inflation and unemployment, to the onset of the depression following the Wall Street crash and finally to the rise of the Nazi party and the Second World War.

Fallada's focus throughout is on the ordinary Germans caught up in these events, creating a different picture to the images of the decadent Weimar Germany popularised in the novels of Christopher Isherwood.

One story is about an old woman living in poverty during the inflation crisis of 1923, when wages in Germany fell to half of their 1914 value. She "doesn't calculate by marks and pfennigs, but by the price of a loaf".

What comes across repeatedly is the constant struggle for work, with characters going through a string of demeaning jobs in "the hustle for a few banknotes that no sooner are you holding in your hand than they're worthless".

Anyone who has worked in a target-driven sales job will relate to the door-to-door subscription who feels the alienation of trying to sell people things that they don't want and can't afford. Reading through these stories, some only a couple of pages long and written in largely journalistic style, gives a series of snapshot images capturing the experience and consciousness of people at this time.

Characters include a young woman worker living in fear of both her manipulative employer and her jealous and violent husband; a night-watchman employed to shoot anyone stealing potatoes from the landed gentry; a struggling farmer whose son is maimed in the war. The stories take us into department stores, prison yards, and potato fields of women. These are the stories of travelling salesmen, escaped convicts, and desperate morphine addicts wandering in Berlin.

Fallada was a victim of this period, and much of his writing has an autobiographical element, reflecting his struggle with depression, alcoholism and morphine addiction, as well as insecure employment and periods of imprisonment. His decision to remain in Germany after the Nazis came to power resulted in a shift away from anything overtly political, as he tried to avoid the attention of the authorities.

However in The Missing Greenfinches, published in 1935, Fallada alludes to what was happening to Jews and opponents of the regime. This children's story ends with a father teaching his son about the importance of respecting all living things and the need to protect the weak and fragile.

Tales from the Underworld is at times touching and sad, but also comic and even hopeful. It gives us a rich and varied insight into the daily life of ordinary Germans during the worst economic crisis of the 20th century, and is well worth a read.

Tales From the Underworld, by Hans Fallada. Published by Penguin Classics.