A man who has spent years exercising and dieting to create a sculpted physique, thousands of pounds on the finest attire, and who has been blessed with straight white teeth and spotless skin, will still look goofy if he chooses to wear a bad toupée. A wonky book title, although it is a small detail, does the same for a book. I am often baffled by translations which wonk up the title. Bridget Jones’ Diary is a clean, neutral title for an adult Adrian Mole which continues to present a benchmark for believable, realistically flawed and multi-dimensional female protagonists. The German translation became Schokolade zum Frühstück (‘Chocolate for breakfast’), which framed the novel as a parade of girly pre-menstrual stereotypes. Hanna, a dark film filled with violence and loss, became Wer ist Hanna?, making it sound like a whimsical romp with a winking blonde on the poster. Why does this happen? And why did it have to happen with Hans Fallada’s Der Alptraum?
Der Alptraum, ‘The Nightmare’, does actually begin with a nightmare. Dr Doll, the protagonist, is having a recurring bad dream in which he lies at the bottom of a bomb crater, surrounded by the desolation of post-WWII Germany and loomed over by the ‘Big Three’ (Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin). The war is over and Doll is consumed with anticipation and trepidation about what will happen next.
What happens next is that Russian troops march into the small town in which he and his young wife have been living. Doll stumbles through some rather awkward months of Soviet occupation, first becoming an incompetent cowherd and then accidentally becoming town mayor, before he and his wife decide to go back to their apartment in Berlin, where they imagine life will be better. Anyone familiar with Fallada’s other books will already be able to predict that life does not in fact get better for the couple in Berlin. Battling through morphine addiction, poverty, hunger and Mrs Doll’s severe case of sepsis, the two protagonists try their hardest to simply keep going in a city disembowelled by the war.
The English translation of Der Alptraum is entitled Nightmare in Berlin, placing full emphasis on the horridness of the Dolls’ experience in Berlin. And this is what makes reading Nightmare in Berlin so odd: for every hardship, there is a lucky break soon after. Doll finds that his apartment has been given away, but gets it back with next to no trouble; he saunters into a sanatorium and his treatment is like a pleasant stay on a cruise liner, with friendly nurses and pleasant conversation; his wife receives excellent care in a comfy hospital, and so on. They even get a seat on a crowded train.
I found it hard, at first, to understand why we are expected to embrace these unspectacular, annoyingly fortunate people as our protagonists. The Dolls struggle lamely to regain a sliver of their previous life while all around them the city shudders and retches. Doll is comforted by the agonised screams of the psychotics and addicts in the sanatorium, while he relaxes; he shivers in his summery clothes, while homeless people around him cling to rags; he chides himself for not contributing to society, then chronically procrastinates when given a job. In Fallada’s other works, the protagonists are ‘little men’, constantly beaten down by the world. Fallada is a master at showing human beings at rock bottom. In Nightmare in Berlin he shows that one man’s rock bottom can be at a much higher altitude than another’s.
I suspect that the book was simply entitled ‘The Nightmare’ because Dr Doll’s hardships in Berlin are not the point of the novel. The nightmare is happening all around them in the hellscape of post-war Germany. Dr Doll and his wife are everymen dragged along by the random, arbitrary and unfamiliar forces which govern this new world. They are feeble and impotent, yet persistent and hopeful, like their country itself. They are selfish and lazy and impulsive, in that gentle way we all are, which makes them very relatable. And by the end I found myself feeling strangely proud of them.
Reviewed by Rose Tremlett
Nightmare in Berlin
Written by Hans Fallada
Translated from the German by Allan Blunden
Rose Tremlett is a freelance creative, specialising in writing and graphic/web design, living in Berlin. She studied German and English Literature and has found no use for her degree yet other than things like this review.