Of all the books I read last year, my favourite was Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin (US title Every Man Dies Alone), the story of a German couple who decide to resist the Nazi regime after their son is killed fighting in the war. It was such an exciting, moving and powerful book, and when I saw that Penguin Classics were publishing a new translation of another of Fallada’s novels, A Small Circus, I couldn’t wait to read it.
A Small Circus is set in and around Altholm, a fictional German town, in 1929. Within the town there are lots of different groups and factions who are all in conflict with each other, including the mayor, various political parties, farmers, journalists and the police. None of these opposing groups are able to cooperate and work together. The novel describes the events leading up to and following a demonstration by the protesting farmers which ends in violence, causing things to quickly spiral out of control.
I have to admit, based on the synopsis alone this was not the kind of book I would normally have chosen to read but I decided to give it a chance anyway, remembering how much I had loved Alone in Berlin. And I really wanted to love A Small Circus too, but I have to be honest and say that, for me, this book was a big disappointment. I found the plot confusing and difficult to follow, partly because of my lack of knowledge of early 20th century Germany and the politics involved, but also because so much of the story was told through dialogue. Almost two thirds of the novel is written in the form of dialogue (according to the Foreword) and it was just too much for me.
I also disliked the translation style. Obviously I haven’t read the original German edition of this book from 1931 so I don’t know what Fallada’s actual writing was like, but this translation feels too modern and full of words and phrases that I wouldn’t have thought would have been used at the time. I’m sure there will be a lot of other readers who will love this lively, slang-filled style, but it didn’t have any appeal for me personally. Alone in Berlin was translated by the same person, Michael Hofmann, but for some reason the language in that book didn’t bother me at all, maybe because I was so gripped by the story.
A bigger problem for me was that there wasn’t a single character in the book that I liked. I can see that I probably wasn’t intended to like them, and this was maybe the whole point of the story (to show the effects of hatred, violence and corruption on a small town and how this was being replicated across Germany, opening the way for the Nazis), but it didn’t make it much fun to read. It’s really important for me to have at least one or two characters that I can enjoy reading about or connect with in some way, but without exception I found everyone in A Small Circus greedy and selfish, with few or no redeeming qualities. And not only were there no heroes to side with, there were no great villains that I could love to hate either – just a lot of very unpleasant people.
I want to finish this very negative post by pointing out that although I didn’t enjoy it very much I didn’t actually think this was a bad book. For the right type of reader, A Small Circus would probably be a fascinating read and the other reviews I’ve seen have been mostly very positive. Unfortunately I was obviously not the right type of reader for this book, though I think I would still be prepared to try more of Fallada’s novels in the future.