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Paul O’Flinn

Berlin Alexanderplatz

(December 1978)

From Socialist Review, No.5, December 1978, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Berlin Alexanderplatz
Alfred Döblin
Penguin £1.75

Jesus, I hate novels like this. Reading them is the sort of careless fun you associate with chewing a brick sandwich.

It’s 1928 and the hero, Franz Biberkopf, comes out of a Berlin prison after doing four years for manslaughter. After a spell selling Nazi newspapers, he becomes a pimp and a burglar and loses his right arm in a car accident.

His whore is murdered by another burglar, he’s framed, and, when the police come for him, he wounds one of them, collapses into a catatonic stupor and ends up being force fed in a lunatic asylum. Then he dies.

Jolly, no? All related in language as warm and enticing as a kick in the kidney, language that, in Orwell’s phrase, achieves the impossible by making the modern world seem worse than it actually is.

Groping and grinding through 478 pages of this stuff on my precious free evenings has brought out the Philistine in me, baying and hooting for blood. I mean, maybe there was a demand for this sort of thing in 1929, when the book was first published.

In 1978 it seems to me there’s only point in reading two kinds of novel – either cheer-up rubbish to take your mind off things, the type of book in which our hero wins the pools, marries a girl with an insatiable sexual appetite (who loves him for his mind) and lives happily ever after, or subversive, outrageous fiction that stands reality in its head and invites you to ridicule it and change it.

Berlin Alexanderplatz isn’t a shout of rage against reality, it’s a glum reproduction of it. To ask £1.75 for a novel that takes hold of our grey environment and its frustrations, magnifies them, and hands them back with no suggestion of a way out, is a bleeding nerve. Come back Warwick Deeping, all is forgiven!

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Last updated: 11 March 2010