Fiction chronicle May 2018
Not just remembrance
On Nightmare in Berlin by Hans Fallada, Theory of Shadows by Paolo Maurensig, A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré & The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Koreaby Bandi.
The past, wrote William Faulkner, lending a hand to generations of scribblers struggling for a first line, “is never dead. It’s not even past.” That was seldom more true than in Germany immediately after the Second World War, the setting for Nightmare in Berlin, the penultimate— and posthumously published—novel by Rudolf Ditzen (1893–1947), the German writer better known as Hans Fallada, a pen name cobbled together from two of Grimm’s tales. This uneven but compelling book initially appeared in 1947 as Der Alpdruck (The Nightmare), but it was first translated into English (by Allan Blunden) in 2016 and released in the United States last year.1 Presumably adding Berlin—a city with a dark grip on the Western imagination—to the title was to boost the book’s sales, and to connect it to its successor, the better-known Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Every Man Dies Alone). This became an English-language bestseller after its first translation (in 2009) and the award of a new title—Alone in Berlin—featuring that bookstore-bait burg along the Spree.
Even by the questionable standards of the creative class, Fallada had a rocky start. Highlights included two failed suicide attempts, the first of many sanatorium stints, murdering his opposite number in what may or may not have been a suicide pact, speedy discharge from the army in 1914 (in retrospect, a spot of luck), alcoholism, and drug addiction (both were problems for much of his life), and two terms of imprisonment for embezzlement. His first novel came out in 1920, after another go at suicide, but before he took up theft. By the beginning of the 1930s, however, Fallada was enjoying some success, notably with Little Man, What Now? (1932), in which he used the plight of one couple to illustrate the effects of the economic crisis that plunged the Weimar Republic into a night it could not survive.
Fallada’s decision to keep on in Germany after the Nazi takeover—and the sporadically squalid compromises that choice involved—contributed to the postwar eclipse of his reputation abroad. He expressed some support for the Nazis early in their rule (“this is the party which will save Germany from chaos”) but never joined them and soon lost whatever sympathy he’d had for their regime. Despite that, he largely avoided trouble by mainly confining himself to non-political fare, although Wolf Among Wolves (1937), focused yet again on Weimar woes, had the dubious distinction of being both praised by Goebbels (“a super book . . . . That fellow has real talent”) and being filmed for East German television.
Nightmare in Berlin draws heavily on the ruins of the Third Reich.
Nightmare in Berlin draws heavily on Fallada’s existence amid the ruins of the Third Reich. Like Fallada, its hero (if that is the word), Dr. Doll, is a writer haunted by the sporadically squalid compromises he has made. Like Fallada, he shared a weakness for morphine with a much younger second wife. Like Fallada, he spends time in rehab, including —yes, like Fallada—a stay in a clinic where he is the only man: many of the other patients were prostitutes under treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. Like Fallada, Doll is appointed the interim mayor of a small town by the Soviet military authorities. Like Fallada, Doll is overwhelmed by the task and retreats to Berlin, “a city reduced to rubble, burnt out and bled to death,” a city of scant rations, hardscrabble squabbles, “trickling debris,” and “rats, looking for something unspeakable in the basement.” And, like Fallada, Doll finds a literary patron, the head of a new arts association. Nightmare in Berlin’s Granzow owes a lot to Johannes Becher, a future East German culture minister, back in Berlin after years in the ussr as a guest of Stalin’s more congenial tyranny.
When Doll greets the incoming Red Army as liberators and hails them as “comrades,” the response is a “withering gaze,” a reminder that as a German he “belonged to the most hated and despised nation on earth.” This realization may account for the most striking omission in a book Fallada described as “a faithful and true account . . . of what ordinary Germans felt, suffered and did between April 1945 and the summer of that year.” Maybe, but when it came to mass rape by the Soviet occupation forces, the dominant issue—beyond simple survival—for many “ordinary Germans” at that time (the victims included Fallada’s first wife, to whom he had remained close), Fallada opted for silence. Perhaps he had found he could live with a fresh set of jackboots. Nightmare in Berlin was first published by Aufbau, a company set up with Soviet approval. Becher was one of its founders.
Nightmare’s prose, typically for Fallada, is unvarnished. The book is intrinsically episodic: “the great collapse,” Doll’s mayoralty, the return to Berlin, a battle over an apartment, the time in clinics, and ultimately a resumption of his career. The plot was never the point. Fallada explained that Nightmare was “essentially a medical report, telling the story of the apathy that descended upon a large part, and more especially the better part, of the German population in April 1945.” Writing it, he confessed, had not “been an enjoyable experience,” partly, I suspect, because of the guilt he himself felt, guilt that he expresses through Doll, a man complicit simply by his passivity in the face of a tyranny that had tyrannized him: Doll had been interrogated, arrested, and spied upon. The Nazis had “banned his books some of the time, allowed them at other times,” but although he was “appalled” by them, he “never did anything about it.” Fallada once wrote that he did not like “grand gestures, . . . being slaughtered before the tyrant’s throne, senselessly . . . is not my way.”
Fallada had few illusions about himself or his compatriots. Asked by the Soviets to address the locals on the day of the Reich’s capitulation, Doll notes the rote cheers and raised arms—“the right arm still, in many cases, raised in the salute that had been drilled into them over many years.” His “nation . . . bore its defeat without dignity of any kind, without a trace of greatness.”
For all that, this sour, subdued, exhausted novel staggers to an unconvincingly uplifting conclusion:
And maybe people will learn something, after all . . . . Doll, at any rate, was determined to be part of this learning process. He saw his path laid out before him, the next steps he had to take, and they meant work, work and more work.
It reads better if “The Internationale” is playing in the background.
By this point Fallada was, in the words of one biographer, “a physical and psychological wreck.” He died in the Soviet sector of Berlin almost exactly six months later, in February 1947.
At around the time that Doll and Fallada were trying to come to terms with their pasts, Alexander Alekhine was avoiding a reckoning with his. In the early stages of Paolo Maurensig’s Theory of Shadows, Alekhine, with only one brief interruption the real-life world chess champion since 1927, is the solitary guest in a hotel in Estoril, Portugal.2 It is March 1946. A heavy drinker for decades, Alekhine is hard-up, in poor health, deep into his own endgame. He is also waiting to hear which Soviet master will challenge him for the world championship in a contest that also will be a proxy for a broader ideological struggle. A traitor to the radiant future, Alekhine had quit revolutionary Russia in 1921, never to return, never forgiven.
Framed as a book within a book (playing games with narration is something of a Maurensig trademark) and as fiction inserted into fact, the complex and atmospheric Theory of Shadows falls somewhere between historical reconstruction and a seductive reimagining of Alekhine’s last days. Its Italian author is probably best known for The Lüneburg Variation, an extraordinary debut published, encouragingly, after his fiftieth birthday. As they do in Theory of Shadows, chess and the Holocaust intertwine in the earlier (somewhat superior, more tightly constructed) book, which also contains references to Alekhine, most significantly this:
[A]nti-Semitic articles appeared with increasing frequency under the byline of the world champion, who . . . noted that after having been so long polluted by Jewish blood, the world of chess would finally recover its purity.
That alludes to a number of articles in the Pariser Zeitung, a newspaper published by the Germans during their occupation of France. Unabashed by inconsistency, Alekhine maintained—take your pick—that these pieces were not his work, or that they had been written under duress, or that his text had been doctored: a clash of excuses undermined both by their contradictions, and, some years after his death, by the discovery of interviews he had given to two Madrid newspapers in 1941. Among the self-incrimination: huzzahs for Capablanca, that rival of rivals, for “depriving the Jew Lasker of the world chess scepter.”
In Theory of Shadows (which was translated by Anne Milano Appel), Maurensig revisits the Paris articles, but adds more to the charge sheet, including Alekhine’s participation in tournaments in Nazi-dominated Europe and his relationship with Hans Frank, Hitler’s proconsul in Poland, a lover of chess and of genocide. Alekhine recalls playing chess in Frank’s residence. Was it “possible to dance the polka in the middle of hell”? Yes, Alekhine had concluded, it was.
At the end of the war, he was left with few friends: to the French [Alekhine had become a French citizen] he was a collaborator, to the Soviets a traitor; even the White Russians who had settled in Europe would not forgive him for having worked, during the Revolution, for the ministry tasked with expropriating the assets of emigrants.
The past parades through his afternoon dreams, but benignly: his mother, the czar, long-dead acquaintances, an agreeable contrast to “bizarre” or “terrifying” nightmares after dark.
A violinist, David Neumann, comes to stay at the hotel. “Alekhine found himself thinking that the man was quite likable. Despite his surname, which clearly disclosed his race.”
Someone slides newspaper articles beneath Alekhine’s door. All “without exception” concern the Nuremberg trials then underway. A man and his wife—two more new guests—dine with Alekhine for the first time; the husband’s remarks grow progressively more probing. The wife, ominously silent, stares at Alekhine and then “abruptly [runs] her index finger across her throat.” It is an unusually melodramatic moment. Maurensig writes in a sotto style that reinforces the impression of a trap slowly but relentlessly closing around the grandmaster: appropriate enough in a book where chess, that most implacable of games, is, as in The Lüneburg Variation, a deity—or demon—demanding attention and much, much more.
The hotel gradually fills, the Portuguese secret police show up, a Russian is overheard discussing Alekhine on the phone. Another clipping, a photo, another dinner conversation: French hit squads are hunting Germany’s collaborators all over Europe. One night Alekhine hears someone fumbling with the lock to his door. The ratchet continues to turn, sometimes, maybe, only in his imagination, sometimes not. Alekhine dies alone in his room. Choked on a piece of meat. That was the official story, difficult to reconcile with the widely circulated photograph of the dead man, seemingly asleep in his chair, wearing an overcoat that would have been unnecessary inside. But that was the official story.
“Perhaps only the imagination allows us to arrive at certain hidden truths.”
Theory of Shadows opens in 2012 with a novelist (with just a touch of Maurensig about him) explaining that he is in Portugal to research what he is convinced was Alekhine’s murder. Despite an Orient Express–load of potential culprits—including the Soviets and those French hitmen—he has been unable to decide who was responsible: “And I know that you cannot write a story centered on a crime without unmasking the killer at the end.” The pages that follow, written by Maurensig, a trickster-writer layering a narrative where reality has a way of slipping out of sight, disprove that. And Maurensig’s crumbling Alekhine—cold and narcissistic under the camouflage of a brilliant naif consumed only by chess—and the circumstances in which he finds himself, would be book enough without a death, let alone a solution.
In an epilogue, the novelist (whom Maurensig never names) meets the individual who discovered (“or so they wanted people to believe”) Alekhine’s body. But what he really saw, or so he says, was the aftermath of a murder. He then reveals who he thinks arranged the killing and their motive for doing so. It is right, this witness-of-something suggests, that the novelist is telling this story as fiction: “Perhaps only the imagination allows us to arrive at certain hidden truths.” That is what Maurensig has done. Perhaps.
In A Legacy of Spies, David Cornwell, the author better known as John le Carré, returns entertainingly, and with some relish, to his past—to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the novel that made his name.3 And the past catches up, unpleasantly, with Peter Guillam, a former agent first encountered in Call for the Dead (1961): the elastic life spans and variable biographies of some of the Le Carré regulars who crop up in this book will niggle the pedantic.
Guillam is now retired in Brittany, “resolutely” fighting off the “accusing voices” that occasionally—the night is kinder to him than to Alekhine—“attempted to disrupt my sleep.” Then his former employers write, asking him back to London: “A matter in which you appear to have played a significant role some years back has unexpectedly raised its head.”
Appear to. Le Carré has not lost his ear for cautious bureaucratic prose.
When Guillam arrives at the Service’s “shockingly ostentatious new headquarters” (and so it is from the outside: disappointingly, I have never been in a position to assess the interior) across the Thames, it’s evident that time has moved on, and so has Leviathan. Different accents—Le Carré’s prickly sensitivity to the nuances of English class is as acute as ever—different, careful jargon (“assets” now, not “joes”), impersonal electronic security, more women, tracksuits, quietness, cleanliness, no windows, sealed windows, locked doors: “Somewhere . . . between Cambridge Circus and The Embankment, something has died.”
But the performance lives on—“Bunny . . . managed a half-squeeze of the eyes for friendly”—and so, for all that regrettable ostentation, does the parsimony. A flat is found for Guillam—in, of course, Pimlico’s Dolphin Square, a massive 1930s apartment complex famous for politicians, spies, and scandal, some of it true—at “a concessionary rental of £50 per night . . . set against [his] pension.” Ashe, the low-level operative who was the first to contact Alec Leamas on East Germany’s behalf in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, had lived there, too. Le Carré likes an old tune.
Le Carré’s writing before the Wall fell was marked by a world-weariness that periodically edged close—but not as close as is sometimes claimed—to calling down a plague on the houses of all the Cold War’s antagonists. Nevertheless, it is difficult to read A Legacy of Spies without detecting some sympathy for the hard edges of those who operated London’s vanished Circus. The stakes, after all, were higher back then. Regret, or, more rarely, guilt, was—generally—for later. Their successors are tough enough, but they have a sickening primness about them. They mouth, and some may even believe, the platitudes of a legalistic, self-righteous society with little awareness of, let alone understanding for, the cruel dilemmas of the past. Rather than risk too much embarrassment over that past, they are—times have changed, you see—willing to throw one (or two) of yesterday’s men under the bus. The embarrassment? The lives knowingly and unknowingly put in danger—and then tragically lost—in the interest of a cause rather more worthwhile than the avoidance of a scandal that in saner times would not be a scandal. A cause, writes Le Carré, acidly, if oddly oblivious of still strong sentiments east of the old curtain, that “the world barely remembers.”
And so, arriving in front of the block of flats that has concealed a safe house for decades, one of those investigating Guillam asks which bell she can press “without catching gangrene,” a phrase mixing contempt with an undeserved presumption of moral superiority. Guillam suggests that she press the one marked “ethics,” “Ethics being Smiley’s own choice for the least alluring doorbell he could think of.”
Smiley. He may have been transformed into a brand like Fallada’s bolted-on Berlin (“George Smiley novels” are now a thing), but it’s good to see him back, if only in flashback up until almost the end, conjuring up memories —to me, anyway—of Alec Guinness on the telly nearly forty years ago.
In one chair sits George Smiley, looking the way only George looks when he’s conducting an interrogation: a bit put out, a bit pained, as if life is one long discomfort for him and no one can make it tolerable except just possibly you.
If you have watched the bbc’s adaptations of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People, try to read that passage and not think of Sir Alec. Gary Oldman can have Churchill: that ought to be enough for anyone.
This time Smiley is in the shadows. A Legacy of Spies chronicles a long-delayed aftershock of the events described in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Smiley, who planned that grand deception, is frequently discussed, but appears principally in those flashbacks, his presence only emphasized by absence, an absence that will be a challenge to preserve if the children of three of those killed as a result of that (in Leamas’s phrase) “filthy, lousy operation” —and what preceded it—get their way. They want revenge. It is perhaps indicative of where, perhaps despite himself, Le Carré’s underlying feelings lie, that, of these vengeful offspring, one is an unrepentant believer in the old East Germany, another is a thug, and we never meet the third at all.
“We were not pitiless,” argues Smiley. “We were never pitiless. We had the larger pity.”
Prospero has forgotten neither the magic of espionage noir (“there is a flicker to his smile like a faulty light bulb that doesn’t know whether it’s on or off”) nor the appeal of knowledge, real or imagined, passed on to us bumpkins by someone who was a real spy for a while: “The tortured are a class apart. You can imagine—just—where they’ve been, but never what they’ve brought back.”
A Legacy of Spies delivers, if only near its finale, an unmistakable political message, particularly for Brits. Le Carré’s stories typically come with a subtext. There were those nods to moral equivalence between the Cold War’s two sides and, often, a revealing combination of class resentment (a souvenir of an upbringing on something of a tightrope) and center-left mandarin condescension. In the introduction to the fiftieth-anniversary edition of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, he brags that he was “writing for a public hooked on Bond and desperate for the antidote.” It was?
Le Carré’s politics have taken a harder, angrier turn in recent years.
Le Carré’s politics have taken a harder, angrier turn in recent years, both inside and outside his books. Much of the grumbling is standard fare: wicked America, wicked corporations, wicked neocons, wicked climate change, wicked Thatcher, although an attack on Salman Rushdie added surprising variety. Rushdie should have, Le Carré advised, withdrawn The Satanic Verses until things calmed down: “I don’t think it is given to any of us to be impertinent to great religions with impunity.”
Impertinent. So judges the mandarin, so rules the former Eton beak.
Naturally, Le Carré disapproves of—the impertinence of it—“that jingoistic England that is trying to march us out of the EU,” and his lofty disapproval permeates Smiley’s grand farewell in A Legacy of Spies, degrading it to a mandarin whine. No, Smiley says, his work has not been for capitalism (the appalled italics are Le Carré’s), or Christendom, or even, after a while, for England. It was for Europe (the appalled italics are mine). If he had an “unattainable ideal,” it was an ideal he still holds, that “of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason,” now managed, we must assume, by Brussels.
Can a fictional character be embarrassed by his creator?
When the Soviet empire collapsed, some worried that Le Carré would have nothing more to say. When North Korea failed to follow suit, the pseudonymous writer known only as “Bandi” (the name comes from the Korean for “firefly”), supposedly a member of North Korea’s state-controlled writer’s association, must have wondered whether he would ever see what he really wanted to say in print in his own land. Between 1989 and 1995, he had secretly turned to writing fiction that told the truth about a country where fact is drowned out by mandatory fantasy.
Nearly two decades later, or so the story goes, Bandi told a relative who was planning to defect about what he had done. Taking the manuscript—handwritten, bulky, and lethally incriminating—with her was too risky, but she agreed to try to send for it if she got out. And that is what she managed to do. The manuscript was smuggled out, and the stories it contained were published in South Korea in 2014 and translated into English (by Deborah Smith) last year. A collection of poems included in the same bundle of papers was published in South Korea a few months ago.
The Accusation’s American publishers, Grove Atlantic, concede that they cannot be sure that its author is not an emigré already beyond Pyongyang’s grasp.4 We do not even know for certain that it is the work of just one person. That said, there is enough circumstantial evidence, including the involvement of a respected human rights activist, and analysis of both the paper on which the manuscript was written and of Bandi’s language—like East and West German before reunification, North and South Korean have drifted marginally apart—to accept, for now, these stories for what they are said to be.
Bandi has been compared to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but the collection of seven short stories that make up The Accusation has neither the sweep of The Gulag Archipelago nor the heft of Solzhenitsyn’s best-known novels. A more fitting comparison might be Varlam Shalamov, the author of Kolyma Tales, terse, precisely crafted glimpses of horror, some just a few pages long, that, taken as a whole, provide a vivid depiction of life—and death—in Stalin’s concentration camps, a guidebook to one kind of hell.
Bandi’s more discursive stories are accounts of what, in North Korea, passes for ordinary life. The camps, the prisons, and the mass graves cast a deep shadow but are largely offstage—until they are not. Schoolchildren suspected of “counter-revolutionary tendencies” are forced to watch the execution of a victim, bound, gagged, and allegedly guilty of an absurd charge: smearing “feces on supplies that were to be exported to the Soviet Union.” It works: “Myeong-chol . . . began to feel ever more cowed and docile, rushing to obey whatever task his teachers . . . might set him.”
Bandi’s characters are cogs in a machine that straitjackets, exploits, and never ceases to watch them. They fear it, worship it, or both. North Korea has been run by leaders saluted by portents (the birth of Kim Jong-il was reputedly heralded by a double rainbow), and associated with superhuman feats and the miraculous. It is a country where the uncertain boundary between communist rule and theocracy has been blurred more brazenly than usual. In one story, “Pandemonium,” the elderly Mrs. Oh, struggling through the countryside to see her daughter, is suddenly summoned to meet one of the passengers who emerges from one of a convoy of passing cars.
[His] pale golden clothes seemed to shed a soft veil of mist . . . a man who was unmistakably “the Great Leader, Father of Us All, Kim Il-sung . . .”
. . . Mrs. Oh dropped to her knees about five paces in front of Kim Il-sung. As she did, words slid as smoothly from her mouth as a coiled spring being released.
“I respectfully pray for the long life of our Great Leader, Father of Us All.”
No matter who you were, if you lived in this land, beneath these skies, you would have memorized these words time and time again ever since you learned to speak; hence they flowed without a hitch from Mrs. Oh’s mouth.
“Oh, thank you.” This cheerful voice came from somewhere above Mrs. Oh’s head.
North Koreans know that the apparatus that contains them can turn on them for infractions that the paranoid logic—in one story curtains drawn in the daytime not only disrupt the obligatory unity of a streetscape, but could be a signal to spies—of totalitarianism can make into the gravest of sins. And as Bandi reminds us, such sins can endure across the generations, reducing the children and grandchildren of the guilty to pariahs, to “hostile elements,” to “crows.” The past is never dead. There is a timelessness about this collection and the state it describes. Most of these stories could have been written twenty years before or, for that matter, twenty years after Bandi put pencil to paper. Even the calendar has been torn out of history and rebased to the glorious year—1912—in which the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, was born on the very day that the imperialists’ Titanic disappeared beneath the waves. Just a coincidence, comrade?
There is a timelessness about this collection and the state it describes.
Kim follows Kim follows Kim, and, even after his death, the first of them, Kim Il-sung, selflessly carried on as its head of state, “the Eternal President of the Republic,” a position slightly renamed now that he shares it with his son, the equally deceased Kim Jong-il. “If you want a picture of the future,” wrote George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” It is a forever that North Korea has made its own:
One by one, columns began to form in the square, neatly divided like blocks of tofu. Each column accumulated new blocks in rapid succession, as though the phrase “without exception” were a long steel spit, skewering people in bunches and delivering them promptly to the square. Eventually, with only five minutes to go, the entire square was a sea of color, with columns stretching out on both sides of Department Store 1 . . . .
Senior state functionaries began to make their way out onto the vip platform. A hushed silence descended on the square, which quivered with palpitations like the sea after a storm has just subsided.
Many of Bandi’s tales end with the protagonists turned against the regime, and, as far as we know anything about North Korea, the level of dissent has increased in the decades since Bandi wrote them, not least due to the famines of the 1990s. Nevertheless, that hushed silence still, for the most part, prevails.
Nothing has been heard of Bandi for over a year. Neither good news, nor bad news, nothing.
1 Nightmare in Berlin, by Hans Fallada; Scribe Publications, 288 pages, $15.95.
2 Theory of Shadows: A Novel, by Paolo Maurensig; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 192 pages, $23.
3 A Legacy of Spies, by John le Carré; Viking, 272 pages, $28.
4 The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, by Bandi; Grove Atlantic, 288 pages, $25.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 9, on page 66
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