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Book Review from Australia

We found that interesting review of A Stranger in my own Country on an Australian site. Interesting not only because it describes well the content of the Fallada's book and the value of the testimony, but also because of the parallel drawn with Antonio Negri's book (also written in jail, but much more later than Fallada), Letters from Prison.

It worth a publication here (original through below link)






Jailhouse screeds by Fallada and Negri




FEBRUARY 21, 2015 12:00AM



THE tradition of prison literature goes back a long way and can be roughly divided into two sub-genres: books written after the fact — Dostoevsky’sThe House of the Dead, Solzhenitsyn’sThe Gulag Archipelago, Mandela’sLong Walk to Freedom — and those that were penned behind bars: Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the collected works of the Marquis de Sade, Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s recentGuantanamo Diary.


The two recently translated volumes under review belong to the latter category. Hans Fallada’s A Stranger in My Own Countrywas written in the Neustrelitz-Strelitz psychiatric prison north of Berlin at the tail end of World War II, and Antonio Negri’sPipeline: Prison Letters, was written in Rome’s Rebibbia prison between October 1981 and April 1982.

Beyond the obvious but superficial similarity — the common denominator of the prison cell — the books are considerably different. Fallada’s was written in secret, in an illegibly small hand, with future publication only the dimmest of possibilities. Like the Jorge Luis Borges character who writes an entire play in his head in the moments before his execution, he was writing into the void. Negri’s was written with an obvious intent to publish — the recipient of his letters, a French activist named David, is a fictional stand-in for any revolutionary-minded reader — and his work is more self-conscious, more deliberate, as a result.

The first is the work of a novelist, with all the tools of his art at his disposal, and the latter that of a philosopher-activist whose primary mode, by his own admission, is “the bloodless lyricism of philosophers [with] their inability to lift themselves out of concepts”. The first was written by an apolitical man whose primary allegiance was to himself, the latter by a wholly political animal who at all times remained wedded to the class struggle. The first is plagued by doubt and self-loathing, the latter buttressed by the strength of its author’s convictions.

Best known in the English-speaking world for his 1947 novel Every Man Dies Alone, Fallada was no stranger to imprisonment under the Nazis. Before he was committed to Neustrelitz-Strelitz in September 1944, he had spent 11 days in protective custody after being accused of involvement in a plot against Hitler. This time, though, the charge was different: he had fired a gun at his ex-wife during an argument and was being locked up for everyone’s safety, including his own.

He requested paper and pen, and started writing. By the time he was released nearly four months later, he had filled 92 lined pages on both sides with microscopic text that he rendered all the more incomprehensible to his guards by turning completed manuscript pages upside down and filling them again between the lines. The result was “part micrography and part calligraphic conundrum … a kind of secret code or cryptograph, which can only be deciphered with great difficulty and with the aid of a magnifying glass”.

His story begins in Berlin on February 27, 1933, the day of the Reichstag fire, and ends on October 8, 1944, the day he smuggled his manuscript out of prison on home leave. It is a story about the Nazi brutalisation of Germany and a man who learned the lesson the hard way: you may not be interested in history but history’s certainly interested in you.

Fallada’s strengths as a novelist permeate his narrative. He is a master of the brief character sketch, bringing friend and foe to life on the page with economy and wit. His passages on cartoonist EO Plauen, who drew the marvellous portrait of him printed here in the end pages and who ultimately shot himself in a prison cell after his landlord overheard him disparaging the fuhrer, are exemplary. “I wish I knew if he died laughing,” Fallada writes. “He was a cartoonist and a caricaturist from the day he was born, and I doubt if he ever saw the world any other way — he just had to smile about it.”

Even better are his withering portraits of the minor weasels the Third Reich seemed to breed en masse — the informants and opportunists, the functionaries and jailers — and whom he seemed to keep tripping over in his naivety. There’s Mr and Mrs Sponar, who inform on him not for ideological reasons but rather to gain the upper hand in a property deal, and mayor Stork, who volunteers for frontline service and then does everything in his power to avoid it while loudly proclaiming his disappointment. “There is such a thing as a typical Nazi face,” Fallada writes. “How often … did I look at this fat face with its bestial chin and cunning little piggy eyes sunk into rolls of fat, and say to myself: ‘That’s what they look like, all of them pretty much, the elite of the nation …’ ”

Fallada is under no illusions about his own role in his increasing misfortunes. “It was of course absolutely typical of the writer Hans Fallada that five minutes after the Nazis had seized power he should have sought out a Jewish international guest house — of all things — as his place of residence,” he writes at one point.

The set piece is his narrative unit of choice. His first arrest leads to a scene in the middle of a forest that oozes terror: ordered out of the car by his captors, he is convinced that he will be shot “trying to escape”. More often, though, and perhaps against expectations, these sequences are played for laughs. The book’s opening scene sets the tone. Drunk when the news of the Reichstag fire comes in, Fallada and his editor Ernst Rowohlt are overcome not with foreboding but with “a veritable furor teutonicus”, and it’s all their wives can do to prevent them from rushing off to “play with fire ourselves”. In another, Fallada adopts the voice of actor Emil Jannings, who recounts a long and hilarious story about a day spent trying to entertain Jos­eph Goebbels without bringing up the minister of propaganda’s crippled foot.

Much of the book takes place in this literary-artistic milieu. We meet editors, authors and filmmakers who for better or for worse — usually worse — chose to stay behind and stick it out. Despite the evidence of his own experience, or perhaps because of it, Fallada has little time for those who “[slinked] away to a life of ease” in the country’s “hour of affliction and ignominy”, much as Thomas Mann and other exiles had little time for those who stayed. The book is an attempt — more pathetic than heroic — to justify a personal policy of “inward emigration”.

Fallada’s isolation, compounded by the unlikelihood of his manuscript making it out of his cell, affords him the freedom to be brutally honest as well as petty and dissembling. On more than one occasion, he dips his toe in the putrid waters of anti-Semitism, suggesting the extent to which he had uncritically internalised Nazi race theories and propaganda. He also indulges in long bouts of literary point-scoring, comforting himself with character assassinations based on gossip he knew to be fallacious. The endnotes are invaluable here, allowing us to compare the original manuscript’s anti-Semitic passages with those that replaced them in the 1945 typescript and pointing out when Fallada’s personal grievances are obscuring reality.

Negri’s book is a more cerebral affair. It ­traces the author’s intellectual development from the Catholic militancy of his youth through his embrace of Marxism and the historical upheavals of the 1960s and 70s to the Red Brigades’ 1978 murder of former prime minister Aldo Moro and Negri’s arrest the following year on charges of insurrection against the state. (In 1983, the year Pipeline was published in Italy, Negri was elected to the Italian legislature; released on grounds of parliamentary immunity, he escaped to France, where he remained until a 1997 plea bargain reduced his sentence and he returned home to serve it out.)

It is a curious book: a political pamphlet masquerading as a history of ideas masquerading as a memoir masquerading as a series of letters to a friend. Or maybe not masquerading so much as bleeding between these at times nebulous genres. Negri’s history and ideas are inseparable, and his intention here is to use both to shed light on the other.

This is not a perfectly symmetrical or balanced arrangement: the general reader may be forgiven for feeling the life often plays second fiddle to the ideas. This can make long passages tough going for those not versed in the specifics of revolutionary theory and practice in the middle part of the 20th century.

Others will bristle at Negri’s ideological leanings. It can be difficult not to smirk at earnest discussions about the composition of the proletariat, the emergence of mass vanguards and fundamental historical laws. Even at the time of the book’s publication, it would have been difficult for all but the most ardent true believer not to baulk at Negri’s rosy abstractions of the Russian Revolution and the theoretical tenets of 1917 from their bloody, concrete history.

Negri nevertheless has some wonderful, fugitive moments when he imbues his radical inclinations with certain aphoristic lucidity: “[S]ocial crisis is not the result but the premise of economic crisis.” “To be a true reformist, one has in fact to be a true revolutionary.” Much of what he has to say in his final letter could have been written yesterday in response to rampant wealth inequality, Occupy Wall Street and the resurgence of the European Left.

Like Fallada, whose narrative ends before he reaches Neustrelitz-Strelitz, Negri’s begins to wind down with his arrest and entry into “a mad round of prisons”. His descriptions of these prisons are eloquent — Palmi prison’s steel “screeches in the wind, metallic, and the abstract screeching penetrates into your brain and everything sounds like an out-of-tune violin” — but even here he seems more concerned with theorising his situation than reporting it.

There is a reason for this, however, and it retrospectively casts the preceding letters and their flights into theoretical abstraction in a more understandable light. “In prison, in the early days, the temptation was to let go of the moorings and set off,” Negri writes. He refused that temptation, instead throwing himself into his work. He had already written The Savage Anomaly, his study of Spinoza, and Time Machine, a book of essays, before beginning Pipeline in his third year of imprisonment. Work — “the optimism of the intellect” — is what made his incarceration bearable. This connects the book to Boethiusand St Paul’s Epistles as an endeavour designed to transform the prison experience from one of repression into one of liberation.

It also connects Negri’s book to Fallada’s. The consolations of literature — Fallada wrote a number of short stories and a novella before embarking on his memoir — may diverge in important ways from those of philosophy, but both, in the end, have consolation as their goal.

“That is where we were,” Negri writes, “and it was there that we had to settle our accounts and regain our dignity, right there in jail.”


Matthew Clayfield is a Sydney writer.


A Stranger in My Own Country: The 1944 Prison Diary

By Hans Fallada

Translated by Allan Blunden

Polity, 300pp, $26.95


Pipeline: Letters From Prison

By Antonio Negri

Translated by Ed Emory


Polity, 224pp, $33.95