A Small Circus

The success of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin is a reminder that literature in translation can prove popular, even if outwith the detective genre. It shouldn’t be a surprise: Fallada was a determinedly populist writer, and his characters were deliberately ordinary. He was a writer who attempted to dramatise the pressures of everyday life, though at an admittedly extraordinary time for Germany. With Melville House having already released new translations of The Drinker, Little Man, What Now? and Wolf Among Wolves, Penguin have followed the success of Alone in Berlin with the early novel Bauern, Bonzen und Bomben, again translated by Michael Hofmann. Though the title literally means something like ‘Farmers, Politicians and Bombs’, Hofmann has opted for the more poetic A Small Circus. This is apt, not only because the novel begins with a circus setting up near the town of Altholm where it is set, but because the events of the novel present the political situation in Germany as a circus, with much posturing among the parties, tricks and slapstick, and an undercurrent of danger.

The real circus causes offence to the local paper, The Chronicle, within the first few pages, refusing to advertise in its pages due to the fact that “No-one reads our fish-and-chip paper!” The editor, Stuff, takes his revenge by writing a poor review of the circus having never seen it. Fallada worked on such a newspaper and has a keen eye for its struggle for survival and the cynical shortcuts it takes to produce copy. Each of the local papers also has a political slant and there is much leaking of information from politician to journalist, as well as non-reporting of inconvenient stories. It is one of many areas where the novel retains a relevance to the present day.

During the Weimar Republic, Germany found itself struggling economically and heavily in debt (sound familiar?) The question, then as now, is who to tax? The novel opens with a wonderful scene where two tax officials attempt to recover oxen in lieu of unpaid taxes. This time, however, the farmers are ready for them: they refuse to buy the oxen at auction and when the officials lead the animals away, they block the roads with fire. Fallada keeps a neat balance between comedy (one official is experienced and determined; the other new and naïve) and tension. The farmers’ political activism leads to a protest march through the town. The movement, however, contains agitators like Georg Henning (in the Dramatis Personae there is a section for Troublemakers); a flag he creates is objected to by the police and he is badly hurt when they try to confiscate it. As a result, the farmers decide to boycott the town.

This brief summary, however, does not even begin to do justice to all the novel contains. Fallada creates a vast cast of characters covering all sides in the dispute. He takes us everywhere we might want to go, from the Mayor’s office to a prison cell. His approach is almost documentary, something emphasised by his extensive use of direct speech, at times to create the effect of a chorus:

“Then ten voices shouted all at once: ‘It’s awful, Your Worship!’
‘I won’t be thrown off the bus.’
‘I’ve paid my fare.
‘Sitting down here himself, what a way to behave.’
‘That’s the police all over. Of course we’ve got no flaming rights.’”

A Small Circus lacks the sympathetic characters of Alone in Berlin. Each of them – journalist, politician, farmer – is plotting or scheming in one way or another. However, they are all identifiably human: for all his satire, Fallada does not resort to stereotypes. Fallada may not be the most artful of novelists, but here is a novel which is bursting with life.

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