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"A Small Circus" review


The Irish Times - Saturday, March 3, 2012

A small world in rag order



FICTION: A Small Circus , By Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann, Penguin Classics, 572pp. £20

MAYHEM RULES WHEN opportunists arrive in a provincial German town where the farmers are already disgruntled about rising taxes. The troublemakers seize on the local resentment to make problems for the already creaking national government, while just about everyone has personal reasons for lashing out. The result is chaotic and wildly funny.

The strange and wonderful German writer Hans Fallada, born Rudolf Ditzen, author of Alone in Berlin (1947, English translation 2009), witnessed, on August 1st, 1929, what was to become a famous protest launched by the farmers of Neumünster, in Schleswig-Holstein. When the facts were filtered through his daring, unruly imagination, the result was this vast, blackly funny second novel, first published in 1931, which resounds with the influence of his beloved literary mentor, Charles Dickens. Almost entirely dialogue-driven, the narrative reads as if written for the big screen: the story is convincing, the characters are larger than life and the pace is frenetic, so fast-moving that it is possible to overlook the fact that this heaving novel is almost 600 pages long.

But Fallada, a natural, if manic, storyteller whose head seemed to burst with tales intent on being told, wrote fast, churning out big books in a matter of weeks. His subject was struggling humanity, usually the poor, the desperate and, certainly in this novel, the less than heroic.

Small-town life, with its meanness and gossip, its claustrophobia and lack of privacy, provides the backdrop for an event sparked by a spiteful gesture. Everything is handled with immense comic panache.

It all begins in a lowly newspaper office, where a failing publication with a miserable circulation is more dependent than ever on its advertising. No one believes in the paper, and Max Tredup, the miserable advertising manager and wannabe writer, has again failed to cajole any revenue from political advertisers.

Tredup’s cynical colleagues, classic hardbitten hacks brilliantly represented by Hermann Stuff, editor and all-round correspondent, prefer to blame Tredup, largely because he is despicable and ambitious.

The owner of the rag is a would-be inventor, uninterested in the ongoing woes of his wife, who is openly drinking herself to death as her way of mourning her dead son.

Fallada immediately establishes a squalid setting. Everyone is beaten, bitter and disillusioned, all except the self-satisfied mayor, Gareis, who believes life can be adjusted to maintain some semblance of order. If the farmers – invariably referred to as the peasants – are being squeezed, so what? They live outside the town.

When Tredup complains that even a visiting circus refuses to place an ad, as the paper is known to be ineffectual, revenge is easy. Stuff writes a damning review of a performance he didn’t see. No prizes for guessing that not only is the newspaper poor but also that it operates without honour. Journalism does not fare well in the narrative; nor does the law.

As with much of his other fiction, Fallada, a judge’s son, wrote A Small Circus from experience. Throughout his life, just about everything that could go wrong did going wrong: he quickly became addicted to drugs, he was a heavy drinker and he murdered a friend by accident in the course of a botched suicide pact. Luckily for the judge, it was possible to prove that his son was insane and thereby avoid criminal charges.

Ditzen jnr wanted to be a writer, and even before adopting his pen name of Fallada – courtesy of the brothers Grimm and the talking horse from The Goose Girl who tells the truth even after he has been beheaded – he had begun amassing varied experiences, as meticulously recounted by his outstanding biographer, Jenny Williams, in her newly republished More Lives Than One . Curiously, despite his bizarre life of frequent illness and stints in prison and mental institutions, he often managed to be in the right place at the right time. His time working as a reporter in Neumünster opened his eyes not only to local journalism but also to the intrigues unfolding at the town hall. Ditzen, as he still was at the time, reported on the inquiry into the farmers’ demonstration on which A Small Circus is based, both for his own paper and for national editions.

In the novel it is horribly funny. The farmers, though not idealised, emerge as people with right on their side, and they are also loyal to each other. The town-hall staff and the police are caricatured, and blatantly corrupt, but are no less funny for that; the journalists appear mildly nasty. But what is fascinating on a deeper level is that Fallada saw the real victim as Germany, his poor beloved country. The Nazis, meanwhile, approved of the novel because it depicted the messy swansong of the Weimar Republic.

Equally interesting is that the book was popular in Germany, although this popularity was quickly surpassed by that of Fallada’s next book, Little Man – What Now? (1932). These two early novels are remarkable on many levels, stylistically and contentwise, as they were not subjected to the official intervention that would then begin to affect Fallada’s work. The writer, for all his many personal problems, was intent on remaining in Germany; he was peculiarly apolitical yet was open to – and agreed to – compromise at the behest of the Nazis.

After his death, from a morphine overdose in 1947, at the age of 53, before the publication of Alone in Berlin , one of his former editors, Paul Mayer, said of him: “German literature has not many realistic writers. Hans Fallada is one of them. His work, mutilated by political terror, is even as a torso important enough not to be forgotten.” Of course the political background and context are vital, yet this extravagant, theatrical yarn delights in its own right as a sustained bird’s-eye view of a community at war with aspects of itself.

Fallada pursues his characters like a fury; we begin to know them – we have no choice – and the eventual court case bustles with the inevitable contradictions: the truths, the lies, the injustice.

Not for the first time, all praise is due to Michael Hofmann’s art and feel for nuance. His translation catches the many voices – some exasperated, others bewildered, a few downright angry – that make this bold, exuberant and candid narrative sizzle with life and the relentlessly shocking reality of it all.


Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent and author of Ordinary Dogs , published by Faber