Magazine article The Spectator

Intrigue and Foreboding

Magazine article The Spectator

Intrigue and Foreboding

Article excerpt

A Small Circus by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann Penguin Classics, £20, pp. 578, ISBN 9780141196558 In 2009, Alone in Berlin, Hans Fallada's masterpiece about civilian resistance to Nazism, appeared in English for the first time. Now A Small Circus, Fallada's literary breakthrough, makes its English debut.

Both novels are admirably translated by Michael Hofmann.

The earlier novel will be of deep interest to the many admirers of Alone in Berlin. Once again, Fallada shows an uncanny prescience in his ability to interpret contemporary political developments through the lives of ordinary Germans. A Small Circus is based on real events that took place in 1929 in Neumunster, Schleswig-Holstein, lightly fictionalised by Fallada as Altholm.

Farmers, incensed by a punitive ruling from the tax office, hold a demonstration which is infiltrated by agitators seeking to ferment opposition to the democratic institutions of the Weimar Republic. Fallada's detached, unadorned, journalistic prose charts the chain of events sparked by the demonstration, and in the process reveals the political landscape in which Nazism could flourish.

By the time A Small Circus was published in 1931, the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the death of democracy in Germany was all but complete.

The story - a complete one, with an enormous cast of mainly male characters - begins in the office of the Pomeranian Chronicle for Altholm and Environs, 'news-sheet for every class'. The irony is immediately obvious: the undersubscribed Chronicle represents no class, since it reports events according to the whim of its editor, the venal, hard-drinking Stuff, who is in turn accountable to Gebhardt, the friendless proprietor motivated only by profit who controls both the rightwing and the liberal press.

Fallada drew on his own experience in working for a provincial paper; it is tempting to see autobiographical elements in his portrayal of threadbare Tredup, Stuff's underling, who, in his quest for self-respect and for cash to support his young family, falls into every moral trap. …

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