Alone in Berlin* by Hans Fallada is the most remarkable book I have read for a long time, certainly the best book I have read this year. The author's real name was Rudolf Ditzen, and he wrote the book in 24 days and died just a few weeks before it was published in 1947. It has taken 62 years to get it published in English. Michael Hoffman the translator has done a magnificent job.
The novel is set in Berlin between 1940 and 1942-3. 55 Jablonski Strasse is an old-fashioned apartment block and the reader is introduced to various residents, the elderly retired Judge, old Frau Rosenthal whose husband was seized by the Gestapo a fortnight previously, the ghastly Persicke family who are Nazi toadies, Emil Borkhausen a petty criminal whose wife Evie has a sideline as a prostitute, and most importantly we meet Otto and Anna Quangel.
Otto is the foreman in a woodworking factory which made fine furniture in peacetime but now produces large crates for the German war effort. He and his wife Anna are self-contained, conservative and thrifty to the point of being miserly. Otto is fiercely private and independent and has so far managed to avoid joining the National Socialist party as he resents the fact that he would have to give a contribution from his wages to the Party coffers. This refusal has meant that he is regarded with suspicion, gets a lower wage and is passed over for promotion.
When Otto and Anna's only son Ottochen is killed fighting in France, they embark on a scheme of small scale domestic resistance to the regime. Otto starts producing anonymous postcards criticising the Nazi party, and they deposit these all over the city. The first of these postcards reads:
'Mother! The Fuhrer has murdered my son. Mother! The Fuhrer will murder your sons too, he will not stop till he has brought sorrow to every home in the world.'
'Pass this card on so that many people read it! - Don't give to the Winter Relief Fund! - work as slowly as you can! - Put sand in the machines! - every stroke of work not done will shorten the war!'
This is a perilous scheme, the postcards come to the attention of the Gestapo almost immediately, and one of their most successful officers, Inspector Escherich, is ordered to unearth the writer of the cards. Then a cat-and-mouse game begins between Escherich and the Hobgoblin , as he refers to the unknown postcard writer. Esterich has a big advantage in that of the 267 cards produced by the Quangels, all but 18 are handed in to the authorities straight away, so plotting where they have been dropped and thus where the writer might be based is fairly straightforward.
Whilst all this is going on, the other residents of the apartment building are surviving in the twisted world that is now German civilian life. Some are crushed by the regime, others rise as a result of having made dubious moral choices, and overshadowing everything is an all pervading fear of the SS, the Nazi party, and a lack of trust or faith in their fellow Berliners.
Eventually Inspector Escherich himself falls foul of the monstrous Gestapo, which is like some huge juggernaut being driven by a crazy drunkard.
Finally, inevitably, Otto and Anna meet their fate.
I found this book an emotionally exhausting read, but it is so well written that it is impossible to put it down once you have started reading it. By the end I was weeping.
Apparently Ditzen based the Quangels on a real-life couple, Otto and Elise Hample, who carried out just such a postcard campaign in Berlin in the early 1940s. Their lives stand as an example of how the common man can be obdurate in the facing of great evil even when it will cost everything.
Primo Levi, who was a prisoner in Auschwitz, must have read this book in German when it was originally published for he called it "The greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis".
There are many, many books about World War Two, but nothing quite like this. It has such veracity, and made me ponder how I would have behaved in such circumstances. I think everyone should read it.
* In the USA the book title is Every Man dies Alone
Cycling England, an organisation which is an off-shoot of the Department of Transport, has come up with the proposal that if there is an accident involving a bicycle and a motorised vehicle be it car, lorry or bus, the driver would be held legally responsible under civil law even if it was the cyclist who was the cause of the accident and they would be liable to pay compensation. If that happened the driver's insurance premium would go up which would be yet another penalty they would suffer when they might have done nothing wrong.
I think drivers will be up in arms when the reality of this plan sinks in.
My DD cycles everywhere (for several years she used to cycle back and forth across central London in the rush-hour, which certainly gave me some grey hairs) and her new husband cycles everywhere too, so I am very cautious about cyclists on the road when I am driving but I fail to see why, if I am obeying the highway code, observing the rules of the road and driving with due care and attention for all other road users, it should be presumed in law that I am to blame in any accident.
Apparently Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands have all adopted this type of legislation, and I would love to hear from anyone from those countries who can tell me how it works and how the public feel about it.
A few nights ago I was driving along a major road and through a big junction when a cyclist, dressed in dark clothing and with no bike lights whatsoever happily rode through the red traffic light and across my way. I slammed on the brakes, and missed hitting him by the skin of my teeth, and fortunately the woman in the car behind me managed to brake fast enough not to hit the back of my car, but it was a very close run thing. I confess that the language I used was not fit for public hearing. The stupid sod carried on his merry way either oblivious to, or uncaring that he had almost caused a three car pile up. Under this proposed legislation he would get away scot free, whereas we drivers would have had a huge insurance imbroglio. In our increasingly litigatious culture this seems an open invitation for drivers to be sued for compensation by any of the crazy Lycra Louts who think they can do as they please on the highway just because they are on a bike
Cycling England seems to be putting out the message two wheels good, four wheels bad - which I resent.
I was recently given the present of a recipe book from South Africa called Cakes to Celebrate Life and Love. It is entirely devoted to the most divine looking cakes and cupcakes, and I can feel myself gaining weight as I turn the pages. The other day I noticed that there were some bananas in the fruit bowl that were a tad too ripe for my taste, but perfect for cooking with, so I got out the new book and lo and behold there was just the recipe I needed. It is one of those recipes where you bake the cake, and whilst it is in the oven you make a hot sauce, in this case butterscotch, and when the hot cake comes out of the oven you pour the sauce over it and it soaks in.
The quantities given make 2 cakes, so one went to the DD & SIL and the other lasted all of 12 hours as the DH and son decided to keep sampling it "Just to see if we prefer it to your old Banana bread recipe..." Oh yes?
It is a lovely moist cake, and I think it would keep well if you stood guard over it!
BUTTERSCOTCH BANANA CAKE
330ml corn oil
3 ripe bananas, mashed
80ml buttermilk (or use sour cream)
1 Tablespoon vanilla essence
420g plain flour
1 teaspoon Baking Powder
Pinch of salt
30g dessicated coconut
60g walnut pieces roughly chopped (plus a few extra for the top)
Pre-heat oven to 180°C. Grease and base line two medium sized loaf tins (approx 2kg size).
In a large bowl whisk together the eggs, sugar, oil, mashed bananas, buttermilk and vanilla. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into another bowl. Add this to the banana mixture, beat together and stir in the coconut and walnut pieces. Pour the batter into the two prepared tins and bake in the centre of the oven for 40-50 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Whilst the cakes are baking prepare the butterscotch sauce.
100g soft light brown sugar
70g butter - preferably unsalted
Place all ingredients in a small saucepan and heat gently whilst stirring until all the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is bubbling. Let it boil for a moment or two and then remove from the heat. When the cakes are done, take them out of the oven and pierce them all over with a skewer, then pour the hot butterscotch sauce over them and leave to cool in the tins.