Saturday, November 15, 2014

Book Review: The Sun is God (2014) by Adrian McKinty

Brevity isn't a quality normally associated with historical fiction. Writers in this field usually measure out their prose in cubits and furlongs, with innumerable bits and bobs of historical detail clinging to their plots like burls on an oak tree. And then we have The Sun is God. Adrian McKinty is a crime/mystery novelist whose stories have always had contemporary settings. This novel (based closely on a true incident) has a crime and a mystery at its heart, and even a detective, but I'd come down on the side of it being historical fiction rather than a mystery novel. And it's quite short.

The setting is the colony of German New Guinea in 1906. A smallish group of Europeans, mostly German, calling themselves "Cocovores" are living on a small island, subsisting entirely on coconuts, bananas and a lot of sunbathing (they're also nudists). The Cocovores are a cult, in fact, and believe that their simple, pure lifestyle will make them immortal. One of their number dies under mysterious circumstances. The local German authorities (it's a very small colony) are forced to turn for investigative help to Will Prior, an ex-member of the British military police who's washed up in New Guinea after being kicked out of the army. Will goes to the Cocovores' island along with a German official and a Miss Pullen-Berry, an intrepid English traveler and journalist. The island reveals some dark secrets, Will faces death and danger, and the mystery is (mostly) solved.

Although the mystery plot gives the novel its backbone, the meat of the story is its look at one of the psychological and philosophical turning points of the modern age. McKinty has managed to pack into this one small, historical incident a lot of the themes that would define the 20th century. Let's begin with Will, who is psychologically damaged from taking part in a massacre of starving black South Africans being held in a British concentration camp. In one horrible moment Will has seen the pointy end of repressive colonialism and industrialized state terrorism, two isms that will metastasize in the decades to come. Will's flight from South Africa is an unspoken resistance to what the British government is doing. And the Cocovores are one of the earliest expressions of the individualism, narcissism, and utopianism that characterize the cults, counter culture, and alternative lifestyles that grew apace over the next several generations. In his descriptions of the Cocovores McKinty nimbly references aspects of future cults such as Jim Jones' Peoples Temple and the Heaven's Gate cult.

The Cocovores are the children of Darwin and Freud and Nietzsche, something that they're very aware of. They are among the first people of the 20th century to take the view that they can and should live outside the control of established states, religions and philosophies; they are the architects of their own universe, albeit one that's demented and reliant on cheap native labour. In the Cocovores we also witness the true believer fanaticism that leads to persecution and murder; on a small scale here, on an epic scale a few years down the road in Europe.

As mentioned earlier, McKinty keeps his story lean and doesn't overindulge in historical scene-setting. Instead, he lets his prose do some that work, as shown here:

Bethman swung a clumsy haymaker at Will's face, which he easily dodged before cleaning Bethman's clock with an upper cut to the point of his prominent chin. The German fell backward, poleaxed by the blow.

The use of semi-archaic words such as "haymaker", "clock" and "poleaxed", and the Boys Own Paper tone of that passage, take us back in time without the addition of distracting historical asides. The Sun is God isn't an exercise in nostalgia or a showy exercise in historical research, it's a sharp, piercing look at an unlikely group of people (for the time) who form a kind of template for the century to come. The only comparison that comes to mind are the Mamur Zapt novels by Michael Pearce (my review), which are marketed as mysteries but are more about colonialism. In any case, McKinty is working at a higher literary level than Pearce. And here's where I contradict myself; as much as I enjoyed the economy of McKinty's writing, in retrospect I wanted the novel to be a bit longer. The back stories of the Cocovores cried out for more detail; these are people who have stepped far, far outside the mainstream so the inner journeys that brought them to New Guinea almost demand a fuller description. That aside, The Sun is God is a refreshing example of historical fiction that achieves a lot without doubling as a cinder block.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Film Review: Nightcrawler (2014)

It was argued in the documentary The Corporation (2003) that corporations think and behave like psychopaths. Nightcrawler takes the view that inside every psychopath there's a raging capitalist struggling to get out. The title character is Louis Bloom, who when we first meet him is driving a crappy car (this already marks him out as odd in Los Angeles) and stealing metal for a living. In the few, short scenes that begin the film we learn all we need to know about Louis: his large, moist, unblinking eyes are always on the lookout for whatever can earn him a dime or a dollar. He's confronted by a security guard while stealing some chain link fencing and notices that the guard is wearing a large, shiny watch. Like some kind of crazed thieving magpie he wrestles the guard to the ground and in the next scene we see Bloom wearing the watch. Is the guard dead or injured? We don't know because the story is told from Bloom's POV, and he certainly doesn't care what happens to other people.

Bloom happens upon a freelance videographer filming a dramatic car crash and learns that these freelancers can make good money selling their footage to local news stations. Cue the demented Horatio Alger story as Louis rises to the top of the freelance news heap by being more aggressive, more cutthroat and cheaper than any of his competitors. He hires an assistant, Rick, who's living in a garage, and patiently explains that he's offering an unpaid internship because the experience he'll get is worth more than money. Bloom eventually, and grudgingly, gives Rick $30 for each all-night shift. The two of them listen to an emergency services scanner and race other videographers to car crashes, fires and crime scenes. Bloom's ruthlessness eventually leads to him manipulating the news instead of just recording it.

Bloom is an odd amalgam of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, a reptilian version of Phil Silver's Sgt. Bilko character, and Chance from Being There. He has no interior life (his stark, barely furnished apartment is a window to his soul), he's just a feral entrepeneur who's learned to mouth business platitudes gleaned from self-help books and seminars. He's matched by Nina (Rene Russo), the producer of a morning TV news show. She'll accept raw video material from Louis no matter how tainted, how immoral his methods are in getting great footage. Nina is in the minor leagues of the TV industry and is desperate to keep her job. Rick plays the role of the oppressed worker who is ruthlessly exploited and then cast aside.

A lot of Nightcrawler is a simplistic, connect-the-dots analogy about the way business works (something I'm in agreement with), but the film still works exceptionally well as an atmospheric thriller. The action takes place almost entirely at night, and Los Angeles has rarely looked so beautiful and yet menacing. The film also benefits from a constant and underlying tension thanks to Bloom's unpredictable ruthlessness, and the finale is a fine piece of action choreography.

On the debit side, the lampooning of local TV news is pretty stale. This subject has been done to death, and Nina is, unfortunately, one in a long line of dragon lady TV executives. The Bloom character is compelling to watch but he's never more than a polemical argument made flesh and blood. And I could have done without the police detective who is given dialogue recycled from every cop show ever. Finally, it's nice to see a nasty, dyspeptic, criminal view of life up on the big screen again. Those kinds of films were the heavy hitters of the 1970s and I'd like to think this marks a comeback for them.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Film Review: Fury (2014)

Much of Fury can be described as a ham-handed, badly acted and poorly-written rehash of Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers. The action sequences (with one notable exception) are impressively noisy and bloody, even gripping at times, but at it's heart this is a western, the kind in which our American heroes/gunslingers have to face off against hordes of Mexicans or Native Americans in a final climactic battle. Think of it as The Wild Bunch with tanks.

The tank commander, "Wardaddy", is played by Brad Pitt. It's a preening, scenery-chewing performance that shows what happens when a megastar isn't held in check by the director. Pitt doesn't create a character, he strikes a variety of poses and attitudes from every macho action film he's ever seen. The script does him no favours because he, along with the other four members of the tank crew, are products of a special key on the lazy scriptwriter's keyboard; it's a function key that automatically creates macho male characters who swear, argue, brawl, bicker, swear, spit, swear, kill, swear, weep copiously over the deaths of buddies (with extra swearing), drink hard, and finally die in a Twilight of the Gods firefight. It's homoerotic porn for gun nuts. David Ayer, the writer and director, goes the extra mile by making his main characters so frantically manly and tough they become loathsome. Aside from the wet behind the ears newbie, the rest of crew, including Pitt's character, are just cursing windbags of testosterone-addled idiocy. In a bit of clunky writing Ayer tries to explain their bestiality by saying that their long service at the front has brutalized them. OK, that was almost an original thought forty years ago. We get it, David, war is hell and you don't win battles with Boy Scouts. Moving on...

Fury would be just another slack-jawed action movie but for one notably offensive sequence that lumbers on stage at about the halfway point. Our "heroes" have taken a small German town, and Wardaddy and the newbie, called Norman, force their way into a home occupied by a woman and her teenaged female cousin. The threat or prospect of rape hangs heavy in the air. That's fine, because history tells us Allied troops did rape German women; not to the degree invading Russian troops did, but it certainly happened. The women are clearly terrified that one or both of them is going to be assaulted. Instead, Wardaddy, who speaks German, tells the older woman to cook for them. A short time later, however, Wardaddy tells Norman to take the young girl into the next room and screw her or he'll do it. A semi-reluctant Norman goes into a bedroom with the girl and does some kind of half-assed palm reading on her. She doesn't speak English and Norman doesn't have any German, but she's evidently so charmed, so smitten by these few seconds of interaction with her potential rapist she happily and enthusiastically has sex with him. WTF? What we have here is a rape fantasy, plain and simple. The female character is being coerced/forced into sex, but because her rapist shows a molecule of charm, she magically becomes eager for sex. And just to complete the fantasy aspect, the girl is gorgeous. The terrors and privations of Germany in 1945 haven't diminished her lingerie-model good looks one iota.

This sour, nasty scene is followed by a finale in which a couple of hundred SS troops launch an assault on Fury (the tank's name) and her crew. Wardaddy and Co. are all that stand between the Germans and an Allied supply depot. This action setpiece fits comfortably with your father's idea of what a World War Two movie should be like: the Germans lineup in an orderly fashion so that the good guys can mow them down in the most efficient manner possible. The Germans must have been scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel in 1945 because these guys have less tactical sense than the average paintball player. They stand in the open and fire rifles and machine guns at a tank. A tank! And then they look surprised when they're blown to smithereens. This last battle is doubly disappointing because some of the earlier tank fights are quite well done. Oh, well. At this point I was just grateful that I was seeing almost all the crew members meet a bloody end.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Lessons Learned From Toronto's Mayoral Election

If at some point late in the evening of October 27 you noticed a sudden wind stirring the tree branches outside your house, that was the result of Toronto's population collectively releasing its breath after the defeat of Doug Ford in the mayoral election. The pollsters all predicted it, but even the faint chance that they might be wrong had the city on edge as though fearing an impending natural disaster. Doug and Rob Ford have been the two-headed kaiju of Toronto politics, but now that they've been sent back to Monster Island, it's time to look at some of the hard lessons Toronto's learned from the election.

Racism Works

Toronto's media scratched its head raw trying to figure out why Doug and Rob could consistently draw the support of up to a third of the electorate despite spouting a string of racial, ethnic and religious slurs. What seemed even stranger was that the Fords had solid support from Toronto's visible minorities. I think the media was trapped in the idea that prejudice is the exclusive preserve of whites. If you've spent any time in public service, or taken a lot of cab rides, you quickly learn that a segment of every race, ethnic group, and religion has a bad word for the other guy. When the Fords vocalized their prejudices they appealed to anyone who's worldview is filled with stereotypes and bigotry. A portion of our population, no matter what its racial or ethnic origin, saw in the Fords people who share their prejudiced view of the world.

An Election is Not a Policy Symposium

Full disclosure: I was an Olivia Chow supporter. It was clear several weeks before the election that Chow was going to finish a distant third, a remarkable failure on her part given that she began the year as an overwhelming favourite. So what happened? The first problem was that Chow has spent her political life in the cozy bourgeois-bohemian confines of wards and ridings in downtown Toronto. At the ward or riding level you can get elected by going door-to-door, speaking to community groups, and generally doing a lot of one-on-one political work. Trained in this environment, Chow thought that simply articulating her policies was a sensible campaign strategy. That's not what elections on the big stage are about. People want to vote for someone who exudes confidence, determination, empathy, and a certain single-mindedness. Chow didn't offer that. She came across as a well-meaning senior civil servant who was tasked with explaining rules and regulations to her juniors. She had to sell herself as a leader and she failed completely. What was worse was that Chow began to campaign defensively with a series of self-deprecating remarks about her accent, her speaking style, and her insistence on sticking to discussions of policy. Her supporters got in on the act and started muttering that criticism of Olivia's campaigning style was veiled sexism, that being aggressive and loud was a male view of how to run for office. That argument didn't wash. Kathleen Wynne just won a provincial election quite handily without being aggressive or shouty, and she had a lot of political baggage to overcome. The simple answer for Chow's failure was that she didn't understand that an election campaign is about selling yourself rather than putting forward an agenda, and she sent the message that she had little faith in what she was selling.

TV News and Talk Radio is an Enabler

Throughout the Ford saga, the Toronto Star and, to lesser extent, the Globe and Mail, have proven over and over again that print journalism matters. They broke story after story about the Fords' crimes and misdemeanors, but all their good work was almost undone by local TV news and talk radio. Most people get their news from TV, and they were ill-served by the local talking heads. TV news twists itself into knots trying to present "balanced" coverage, and that meant the Fords could get coverage of their staged media events without analysis or context. TV news relies on an older demographic, a group that also happens to be key Ford supporters, and it seems obvious that they went out of their way to avoid alienating their audience with critical Ford coverage. Talk radio skews even older, and stations like 1010 were right behind the Fords, up to and including giving them their own show. You could almost include the Toronto Sun newspaper as part of talk radio because their advocacy for the Fords was so blatant any claims they had to being a news organization became risible. They were propagandists, plain and simple.

The Canadian Disease

Call it Canadian politeness, but we don't seem able to call a spade a spade. The Fords spouted lies the way a volcano spews ash, but I don't think I ever heard Chow, Tory or a reporter interviewing a Ford call them liars. Lying is the oxygen on Planet Ford, and without it they didn't really have a campaign or even a platform. Chow and Tory had multiple opportunities in debates and speeches to point out this fact out but something--fear of sounding rude?--stopped them. And why couldn't one of them have drawn attention to the Globe's story that Doug Ford was once a hash dealer? It's hard to imagine an American or British politician being given a free pass on that accusation by his opponents, but that's what Ford and Chow did.

What's the Matter with Kansas?

That's the title of a book by Thomas Frank that attempted to explain why poor and working-class Americans in red states support the Republican Party, something that clearly goes against their economic interests. The same phenomenon took place in Toronto. The poor and working poor flocked to the Fords, a pair of millionaires who want to slash city services, and snubbed Chow, the theoretical socialist. I say theoretical because Chow worked hard to make people forget her NDP roots. Late in the campaign, as her poll numbers collapsed, she began to call herself a progressive, but it was too late. Ford's demographic should have been hers, but like too many Canadian leftists she decided to chase the middle-class and ended up on the outside looking in. The Fords appeals to the poor, which consisted entirely of meaningless photo ops, was monstrously hypocritical, but it worked because they were the only ones making specific appeals to that group; the working-class was rewarding the Fords for having the courtesy to pay some attention to them.

Cops and Capitalists United in Impotence

During Rob Ford's time in the mayor's office he committed multiple crimes, including drug possession, impaired driving, and child (his own) endangerment. The police were tailing Ford off and on for months, and were very likely aware of these crimes as they happened, and certainly knew about them once they hit the newspapers. They took no action, except for mumbling excuses about "ongoing investigations." The city's business leaders were silent about the buffoon savaging Toronto's reputation around the world. In fact, many people in the business community (take a bow, Toronto realtors) were happy to have a mayor who woke up every morning with the words "Tax cuts!" on his lips. Ford's mayoralty was a clear, cold lesson that political power, even if it's wielded by an idiot, provides a moral Teflon-coating, especially when the idiot is singing from the right-wing hymnbook.

John Tory is the new mayor, and while he's highly unlikely to go on a crack-fueled rampage (he seems like more of a milk and Graham crackers guy), he's conservative to the tips of his Bass loafers and just as likely as Rob to try and cut city services. He'll do it politely, but his CV suggests that politically he and Ford have everything in common except recreational drug use. Here endeth the lesson.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Best Non-Horror Horror Films

Every October the internet is awash with suggestions for Halloween-themed movie watching. This isn't exactly one of those lists. Rundowns of the best horror movies have a year after year sameness to them due to the fact that the genre has been in a creative rut for a quite a few years. On the one hand you have Paranormal Activity and its dozens of clones, and on the other you have torture porn/slasher films that only exist to highlight the work of the prosthetics wing of the SFX department. So here's a list of films that provide the fear and existential dread of the best horror films, but without any supernatural content or masked men wielding knives/axes/garlic presses.

Onibaba (1964)

It gets scarier than this.
 Set in a marsh in rural Japan, a woman and her widowed daughter-in-law make a living killing lone samurai who cross their path. They dump the bodies in a deep hole in the marsh and sell the armour and weapons they've stripped from the bodies. Things go awry when the young woman acquires a love interest and her mother-in-law finds a "demon" mask. This is a seriously creepy and atmospheric film thanks to some amazing cinematography that's reminiscent of Val Lewton's horror films.

Innocence (2004)

"This doesn't look like Hogwarts."
The girls who live and study in this French boarding school make their first arrival at the school in coffins in which they seem to have been sleeping. Things get weirder. The school is in a walled park and no one is allowed out. After a peculiar course of study the girls are sent...but, no, that would be a spoiler. Marion Cotillard is one of the teachers in this sumptuous-looking film, which creates tension and dread by not giving us any clues as to what's really happening.

Winter's Bone (2010)

And they live in the good part of town.
Every minute of this dark crime drama is filled with dread. Jennifer Lawrence's character, Ree, has to prove that her father's dead, and to do that involves running a gauntlet of back country characters who'd probably regard Deliverance as a sitcom. The hills of rural Missouri are filled with crazed crackheads,  meth dealers, and garden variety bug-eyed rednecks, all of whom Ree has to negotiate with or cower in terror from. It's a hair-raising film that's almost devoid of violence.

The Parallax View (1974)

One of them gets down the quick way.
One of the key tropes in most supernatural films is that ordinary things aren't necessarily what they appear to be; see that sweet-looking doll over there? Turn away for a second and suddenly it's got it's hands around your throat. This political conspiracy thriller about a shadowy corporation that assassinates US politicians works a bit like that. Warren Beatty is a journalist who starts uncovering the truth but faces danger and double-crosses every step of the way. Director Alan J. Pakula brings the same mood of paranoid spookiness to this film as he did to Klute and All the President's Men.

Wake In Fright (1971)

Watch out! He's reaching for his pouch!
Yet another horror film trope is the character who keeps making terrible choices, such as taking midnight strolls in cemeteries, going into attics/basements to investigate odd noises, and admitting men into the house who introduce themselves by saying, "I'm Count...uh...Alucard. Yeah, that's it, Count Alucard!" The central character in this Aussie film (but directed by Canuck Ted Kotcheff) is an Englishman who has to spend one night in a godawful Outback town for a flight that will take him back to England and civilization. He then makes a series of bad decisions that land him in one horrible situation after another, all involving the very unappetizing locals. The film has a gritty, documentary feel, an unrelenting sense of impending doom, a big, brassy performance from Donald Pleasance, and cinema's only knife fight between a man and a kangaroo.

The Hill (1965)

Harry Andrews isn't keen on Connery's moustache.
A tried and tested horror film structure is to have our hero(es) battle/run from a seemingly invulnerable maniac killer or supernatural entity. In the last few minutes of the film the baddie is bloodily defeated and all is well...or is it? The Evil One inevitably leaps back to life and things end badly for everyone except the film's producers, who've thereby left the door open for sequels. The Hill is set in a British military prison in North Africa that holds deserters and shirkers and the like. The officers in charge of the camp are a collection of bullies and incompetents, and one of their prisoners is worked to death as part of a punishment detail. A few of the prisoners, led by Sean Connery's character, try and have the responsible officer brought to justice. It seems like an impossible fight, and just when it looks like they've won...This is probably Connery's best performance, and he's supported by an A-list cast of Brit character actors all of whom try and outshout and outact each other; it's like a thespian version of WWE.

Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

I'm telling you it's not a horror movie!
 The title character, an upper-middle-class Roman housewife, finds out her husband is having an affair and has a nervous breakdown. Her breakdown takes the form of seeing visions, and this being a Fellini film, the visions are eye-popping celebrations of Technicolor, sound design, and visual imagination. Fellini isn't trying for scares or even dread, but some of his imagery, especially in the final section of the film, makes you realize that he could have made an amazing horror film.

So there you have it; seven "horror" films that are largely blood and viscera free. And if you absolutely have to have celebrate Halloween with a horror film, check out Lake Mungo, an Australian film that could almost make this list because it keeps its supernatural elements to an absolute minimum and becomes all the scarier because of it. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Book Review: Get Carter (1970) by Ted Lewis

Get Carter is hands down the most iconic British gangster film of all time, and it's arguably the most memorable role of Michael Caine's career. It's odd, then, that it took so long for a publisher to reissue the novel it was based on. The original novel was called Jack's Return Home, which is an accurate, if underwhelming, description of the contents therein. And now the eternal question: which is better, the book or the film? The answer is that this one of the rare cases where the book and film are equally superb.

For the few people unfamiliar with the film or the book, the story follows London hood Jack Carter as he returns to his hometown, an industrial town in the north of England, for the funeral of his brother Frank. Jack suspects that Frank's death in a car crash wasn't accidental, and he's soon putting the hurt on various people to try and find out the truth. The local gangsters and Jack's bosses in London don't like that Jack is ruffling feathers and breaking heads, and decide it would be better if he was dead.

The novel has not aged one bit. The plot is tight and tense, but what really stands out is Lewis' dyspeptic prose. Here's his description of the patrons at a pretentious club/casino:

Inside, the decor was pure British B-feature except with better lighting. The clientele thought they were select. They were farmers, garage proprietors, owners of chains of cafes, electrical contractors, builders, quarry owners; the new Gentry. And occasionally, thought never with them, their terrible off-spring. The Sprite drivers with the accents not quite right, but ten times more like it than their parents, with their suede boots and their houndstooth jackets and their ex-grammar school girlfriends from the semi-detached trying for the accent, indulging in a bit of finger pie on Saturdays after the halves of pressure beer at the Old Black Swan, in the hope that the finger pie will accelerate the dreams of the Rover for him and the mini for her and the modern bungalow, a farmhouse style place, not too far from the Leeds Motorway for the Friday shopping.

Throughout the novel Lewis applies an acid wash to English society; more specifically, the culture and environment of ugly, money-obsessed, industrial towns in the North. Sometimes the novel reads like hate literature about northern England, but certain other (brief) passages are tinged with Jack's nostalgia for childhood outings with his brother in the countryside around the town. There's a sense in the novel that a more civilized, less mean-spirited England once existed but has now been consumed by a cabal of gangsters, bent coppers, avaricious politicians, and a middle-class obsessed with climbing the social ladder. The spirit of this older, better England is personified by Jack's brother. Frank is dead when the novel begins, but in a brilliant bit of writing Lewis lets us know all about him with a description of the contents of his living room bookcase; his tastes in magazines, books and music are an eloquent testimony to a sober, decent character who was too good and too old-fashioned for his place and time. As Jack investigates Frank's death it becomes even more clear that he was the odd man out in a town given over to self-interest and viciousness, and Jack's attempt to solve and avenge Frank's murder becomes an attempt to reclaim some small part of the innocence he once shared with his brother.

The literary step-parents of Get Carter are Alan Sillitoe and Harold Pinter. Jack's misanthropic descriptions of the town are an echo of the anger Sillitoe brought to his novels and short stories set in the north. Sillitoe had more sympathy for his characters, trapped as they were in dead end jobs and dreary housing estates, and he was more concerned with showing the social and political facts that produced depressed lives and dreary communities. Get Carter's terse, elliptical, and allusive dialogue is pure Pinter. Jack's chats with his fellow gangsters usually have a neutral and pleasant tone but underneath it all they're straining to express violence, rage and naked threats. It's a unique way to create tension, and it's a device that was developed further by Brit crime writer Bill James in his long-running Harpur & Iles series.

So, how far does the book differ from the film, you ask? Not that much, really. The plot was streamlined for the film, and scriptwriter/director Mike Hodges did a wonderful job of choosing what to cut and compress. In a few places the film actually does a better job than the novel; Jack's famous line in the film when he meets Cliff Brumby ("You're a big man, but you're in bad shape. With me it's a full time job. Now behave yourself") is a tweaked improvement over the dialogue from the book. Hodges also made a wise decision to tone down some of the violence aimed at the female characters. Ted Lewis wrote two other Jack Carter novels, Jack Carter's Law and Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon, both of which are also being reissued.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Book Review: Alone in Berlin (1947) by Hans Fallada

Well, the contest is officially over. George Orwell's 1984 and Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon have been relegated to my personal second division of searing novels about life in a brutal, totalitarian state. It wasn't even close. The prime reason for Alone in Berlin taking home the cup is that Hans Fallada knew whereof he spoke. In 1911, at the age of eighteen, Fallada killed his best friend as part of a mutual suicide pact and then bungled his own attempt to kill himself. Life was telling Fallada something. He was then banged up in a psychiatric hospital, and for the rest of his life (he died shortly after finishing this novel) Fallada was in and out of prisons, hospitals and psych wards. He battled addictions to drugs and booze, worked as a farmer and journalist, and eventually became one of the more successful and well-known German writers of the 1930s. One of his novels, What Now, Little Man?, was even made into a successful Hollywood movie in 1934. Under the Nazis he alternately resisted and knuckled under (Goebbels put a menacing word in his ear) to their insistence that his writings take a pro-Nazi stance. Fallada had intimate knowledge of resistance and collaboration, and those are the twin poles around which his last novel revolves.

Alone in Berlin is based on a true story and follows Otto and Anna Quangel, a working-class couple whose only child, a son, is killed in action in 1940. They're devastated, but unlike millions of other Germans, the couple decide to clandestinely protest the war. They start writing anti-war, anti-Hitler statements on postcards and drop them in public places. The Gestapo is soon on the case, although the impact of their protest is clearly negligible. The Quangels manage to evade capture for several years, but, inevitably, luck turns against them and they're caught, and the last quarter of the novel covers their interrogation, trial and imprisonment.

The Quangels are at the centre of the story, but there are at least a dozen other characters who orbit around them, including co-workers, neighbours, relatives, cops, Gestapo officers, and criminals. These supporting characters include (to name a few) ardent and avaricious Nazis; working-class Berliners trying to keep their heads down and endure the war; petty criminals who are both evading and profiting from the war; and naive, hopeless resisters to the Nazis. Fallada knew what life was like in the lower reaches of German society, and presents it with a brutal, even enthusiastic, harshness. His characters are terrified of the Nazis and the war, and the horror of the regime seems to bleed into personal relationships, many of which are violent and toxic. Fallada is brilliant at describing the petty, degrading horrors of life under Nazidom and the way people will demean themselves to stay out of trouble or curry favour with the authorities. The prison sections of the story are the best of their kind I've ever read. Fallada had many and varied experiences of being detained by the state, and every morsel of that experience and knowledge makes it into the novel.

Grim would be a good, catchall description of Alone in Berlin, but it's also ferociously tense and spiked with a terrifically black sense of humour. It makes for an odd but exhilarating reading experience. There are no happy endings for anyone, but Fallada writes with such energy and descriptive richness that reading about the horrors of life under the Nazis becomes perversely pleasurable. What's even more remarkable about this novel is that Fallada wrote it in under a month, and you can sense that he was in a rush to capture in prose all the rage, bitter sarcasm, and cynical humour that had been bottled up inside him since the Nazis came to power. Alone in Berlin isn't just a great novel about totalitarianism, I'd also put it forward as perhaps the best novel to come out of World War Two.