I discovered Hans Falada via a friend, who recommended Alone In Berlin. I say recommended – she insisted I read it, not least because a relative of hers had died in circumstances not entirely dissimilar to those of the hero and heroine who fell foul of the Gestapo. As another relative had captained the ship that captured the Enigma machine, maybe history balanced that one up a little. But irrelevant. Little Man, What Now? is nothing like Alone In Berlin. Nothing.
OK, the central characters are firmly at the bottom end of the social scale again and the latter half of the book is firmly set in Berlin, but a Berlin of straggling suburbs and allotments rather than the tram-infested zentrum.
This is about poverty and hopelessness and despair and struggling to survive and being a tiny, disregarded, probably un-necessary cog in a huge machine that you can’t see the purpose of. And at exactly the same time it isn’t. It’s a love story, not just of the Little Man for his Lambchen, but a story about love and trust and faith in each other. It’s intensely moving, not just because you know with each passing page that as the characters know too, their world won’t last but unlike them, you know why and how and what’s going to happen.
The Nazis are going to get in. Berlin is going to be demolished. The Little Man is going to be drafted. Lambchen is almost certainly going to be raped and the rest of the world is going to look the other way then pretend it didn’t really happen for the rest of time, because of what some politicians she had no control over did. And then the Russians are going to cut their country in two and if Pinneburg and Emma and their son, the Shrimp, somehow survive then they’re going to be living in the GDR until the Wall comes down, when they will be in their 80s.
But somehow, you get the feeling that maybe, just maybe they might get through even all of this, all of these horrors they don’t even know about, that Hans Falada didn’t know about, back in 1932 when this was written. And if they don’t, or didn’t, you feel that they did their best. And that’s pretty much all anyone can do.
Don’t be put off by the fact that this was the book that lead directly to Hans Falada’s death. It sold massively. So much so that it was turned into a film. In Hollywood. By Jews. You see the problem? You would have done if you lived in Germany in the mid-1930s.
Don’t be put off by the age of this book. The view from the bottom of the 99% upwards could have been written last week. Ignore the fact you’ve never heard of this book. Ignore the fact it was written in German. It will leave you quiet and sad and happy at the same time, wondering if maybe, just possibly, love will find a way after all.