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A Small Circus


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Review of A Small Circus by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hoffman.

 

This novel is set in Altholm, Pomerania, Weimar republic (Pomerania is now split between Poland and Germany) in 1929 the title comes from the prologue where as the visiting circus refused to buy as space in the Altholm chronicle calling it a "fish and chip paper", the newspaper publishes a scathing review calling it a small circus.

 

The rest of the novel, the circus is not i it in a real sense but a metaphorical sense. The narrative structure is a third person and there is no focal point of a character with various characters in the novel being important. There is the mayor Gareis (though the translation of mayor may be a bit disconcerting as there is also the position of Lord Mayor in the small town). The press is a main focal point too with the Altholm Chronicle editor Stuff and advertising manager Tredup also featuring strongly. We then also the farmers, who form the main crux of the events that spiral in the storyline as two Revenue bailiffs go to confiscate oxen from a farmer who had a crazy estimated tax bill levied against the farmer. (Considering how the topic of the novel comes froma Revenue bill, could I claim the time spent reading it as part of a Continual Professional Development time needed for my annual return? *ponders*)

 

The novel is split into three section, the first entitled "the farmers", the second "the townies" and the last section is called "judgement day". There is really no character that comes out of the novel looking good but this isn't a bad thing. In the portrayal of the characters there is a darki comedic force (I burst out laughing at a couple of things in it, for example 

 

 

a woman's testimony in the final section of the novel in describing the dentist, although another reason is that she could have been describing me

 

 

 

Fallada was looking at making the going on of the small town in question, based on his own experience as a journalist in the region to be the circus that it was, encapsulating the last days of the Weimar Republic. If it was a new novel now, I'd probably be criticising it for being just based on the benefit of hindsight on the crumblings of the Weimar Republic. Being as it is from around the time it was written, it seems very prescient in the portrayal of the Weimar Republic.

 

This is not the best book ever written but it is a very good book. Fallada has a great ear for dialogue and this book is very big on dialogue, maybe if Fallada was alive today, he might have been a script writer instead as his novel do tend to be dialogue hevy (though that is only based on reading 2 of his other novels, one which was specifically made for the intention of making a film of it)

 

★★★★

Edited by iff
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  • 3 weeks later...

My review of this seems to have been lost in the crash - so here it is again:

 

Do you know that trick writers sometimes use, where readers know that a major catastrophe is coming when the characters don't? Like those scenes on the Titanic, where we see characters dancing, laughing and making plans for the future when we can all see the iceberg coming...


A Small Circus is a bit like that - but with a difference. Not only do the characters not know that society is about to collapse; the Nazis will take power; and Germany will be plunged into war and genocide - the writer too is unsighted on the future. It is therefore difficult to read A Small Circus through the eyes of its original readers. Sure, we see a fragmented society that is turning in on itself; we see various political groups galvanising themselves behind flags and uniforms - but could the eventual outcome have been predicted? That is the conundrum which makes this somewhat over-long novel so intriguing.

In terms of plot, we see on the one level a massive rift between the citizens of Altholm and the local farmers. With its origins in taxation, the rift escalates into violence and boycotts. However, the ensuing scrap exposes rifts that run much deeper throughout society - between Altholm and the neighbouring towns; between rival newspapers; between polical factions; and between the old and the new. A veneer of rules soon cracks and reveals that everyone, pretty much without exception, is willing to lie, cheat and connive to further their own personal interests. Obviously some are better at it than others and part of the comedy is in watching the hapless Max Tredup being dealt some lucky cards and playing them very badly. Others also get their fingers burned, but never quite as tragically as Tredup who is so desparate to become a player.

Much of the novel centres around a riot in the main square and the subsequent investigation and court case. This means that despite its length, the events take place over a very small space of time and are quite narrowly focused. That makes it feel very slow moving at times. Moreover, the novel has a complex cast of characters who have many interactions with each other - often based on deception and manipulation. It can be quite an exercise trying to remember exactly who is who; who they are trying to shaft, and why. I guess that was Hans Fallada's intention - to show fragmentation and confusion - but it can make for a frustrating read. If the novel were only about plot and entertainment, it would get a pretty ordinary rating.

So what makes it work?

The characters, even though they are lurid and extreme, have a very real feel to them. Their motivations and ambitions ring true even if their actual actions feel stylised. The influence of the media on society also feels fresh. The local newspapers are not the typically heroic, impartial investigators of so much fiction at the time. Instead, they mould the truth to fit their readers' prejudices whilst, at the same time, trying to influence the readers' behaviour. This complex "push-me pull-you" relationship allows the press - specifically the Pomeranian Chronicle - to sit at the heart of the story, offering a window onto all the different sectors of society. And there is also a pretty good story-telling technique at play, switching between scenes and viewpoints frequently to allow mutiple storylines to play at once.

Hans Fallada was a master story teller who found himself living in "interesting" times. His work is therefore important in both a literary and a historical context. Arguably, other works tell better stories - e.g. Alone In Berlin, but A Small Circus offers a far more interesting insight into history. The Weimar Republic is too often considered only as a precursor to the Third Reich, whereas A Small Circus depicts it in its own right.

 

****0

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