This unusual story of the quiet insurgency of Otto and Anna Quangel against Hitler’s war begins with the various characters in their apartment building. At the beginning of the story, each family has little to do with each other, but because the Gestapo has fostered a culture of paranoia and turning others against each other, each has an eye out for/against the other and their lives become unwittingly embroiled together. Ironically, the most self-contained and private of all of them, reveal themselves to be the most truly dignified, even as they are ineffectual in their attempts at postcard propaganda.
Let’s just start with the statement that this is not the usual WWII novel, at all. The quirky writing and the shift in focus from minor character to character keep it floating just a little bit above the usual depth of despair that one usually carries, although it is certainly not without its violence or death. The focus, though, is really on what is going on in Germany proper and particularly in the ” criminal justice” system. There are more than a few interlocking stories of how corrupt Nazi Party officials use their positions to gain from the losses of the masses and everyone tries to profit from informing on each other. The overarching irony becomes who are the “criminals” and who are those who deliver “justice.” The highlight of this is the actual trial scene, during which a judge essentially does the work of the prosecutor. After this, when Otto’s “defense attorney” accuses Otto of being mad for what he’s done, Otto rightly asks him, “Do you think it’s mad to be willing to pay any price for remaining decent?”
The most dignified characters here are also the most common, ordinary ones. Otto and Anna are not wealthy, and not well-educated. They are hard-working, awkward, regimented people. Otto is pretty OCD and shuns social interactions. He is not the typical novel hero. Which I think is what makes him all the more striking as a hero here. He’s saying here that anyone can, in his own, small and dignified way, stand up for what he believes in – for what is right.
There is an obvious message here and relevance to what is going on today. I apologize for my frequent references to political issues in this supposed literary blog, but I can’t help myself. As I read this book, particular lines and issues jumped out from the pages as if coming fresh out of the newspaper headlines of 2018 as well. Injustices done to people because of their race or religion, leaders getting away with abuse of power because people worshipped them valuing party over constituents, having a leader of a country who believes himself a deity deserving of unlimited power as if he is not in a democracy at all. It’s all too familiar and if we do not stop this, it will be just as it was in 1933 at the beginning of all of that.
We have to circulate our own little postcards here and now. This is mine…