It's what every reader longs for but experiences all too rarely. Just a few pages into a book and you realize there's something special in your hands. German author Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone is just such a book. And what makes it perhaps that much more remarkable is that it is now being published in the United States for the first time more than 50 years after it was written.
Every Man Dies Alone is far from the perfect novel. No one would expect it to be given the fact Fallada, the pseudonym for Rudolf Ditzen, wrote it in 24 days. From today's perspective, his style tends to reflect the era in which the book was written. Additionally, he likes to wander a bit and uses coincidence as a plot mechanism perhaps a bit too much. Even with such flaws, the book deserves to be on plenty of this year's "best of" lists.
Every Man Dies Alone is based on the true story of a married couple who dropped postcards containing anti-Nazi and anti-Hitler messages throughout Berlin during World War II. In fact, the book includes reproductions of the Gestapo file on that case, including photos of several of the cards. Here, the couple is Otto and Anna Quangel, whose campaign begins after their only son is killed in the Nazi victory over France in 1940. Otto is a taciturn, staid foreman in a factory that goes from producing furniture before the war to coffins as the war progresses. Anna is a homemaker who, despite her self-imposed subordination, is close to an equal partner in their crusade.
The book, translated by Michael Hofmann, essentially follows the investigation into their campaign and those — both noble and despicable — whose lives somehow intersect with their defiance. There's plenty of people who are directly or indirectly swept up or affected by their actions. They include Eva Kluge, the postal worker who delivers their son's death notice; other residents of their apartment building, from petty crook Emil Borkhausen to ardent and brutal Hitler Youth member Baldur Persickes to retired Judge Fromm. There's also the fiancée of the Quangels' son, the investigators, Anna's brother and sister-in-law, and Enno Kluge, Eva's ne'er-do-well, estranged husband who gets caught up in Emil Borkhausen's mischief.