A Small Circus by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann

Penguin Classics, pp.578, 20

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 Neumünster, 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 under-subscribed 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 right-wing and the liberal press.

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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. But in a Germany bled dry by post-1918 reparations and newly rocked by the Wall Street crash, where is the man not demoralised, even brutalised, by humiliation and need?

This is a novel without a hero. Altholm, despite its quiet provincial appearance, is an unstable conglomeration of financial, political and sexual corruption. The violence resulting from the farmers’ protest knocks the lid off a mass of seething maggots. And yet there is no villain either. Fallada condemns nobody, not the creepy paedophile Manzow who buys complicity with champagne; not murderous Farmer Banz with dynamite in his barn and nine enslaved children, ‘broad and knobbly dwarves, silent dwarves with frightening hands’. Even in the most degraded, there remains the potential for Anständigkeit, decency, the quality that, in Alone in Berlin, enables the unprepossessing Quangels to make their heroic stand against oppression.

A Small Circus is a big book, in every sense. Fallada represents the entire, bewildering range of political parties, all of them corrupt to some degree. The geographical range of the novel is small, but ‘all human life is here’, summed up in the colossal figure of Mayor Gareis, an almost Falstaffian character who becomes the focus for the reader’s sympathy despite, or because of, the flaws of which he is himself aware.

A large proportion of the text consists of quick-fire dialogue. It reads almost like a series of radio plays. There is almost no authorial voice; Fallada turns himself into the invisible, unbiased reporter so conspicuously lacking in Altholm.

Michael Hofmann has decided to translate the vernacular of 1929 into its modern equivalent, and though 21st-century words and phrases may occasionally jar, it feels like the right decision. He comes as close as possible to giving us Fallada’s work in all its coarse, humorous, immediate, tragic glory.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book reviews, Fiction, German