It appears that some readers were let down by this book in the series simply because it did not hold the same gravitas as the first book in the series. They may well have a valid point but I wanted differences in the lives of these great characters. To that end, the author has delivered. I thoroughly enjoyed the continuation of the saga. It is trues that there is nothing ethereal in this book. However, the plights of these folks continue to show just how difficult their lives, and those around them, became during the depression. I anxiously await reading the next in the series. After reading Jonathan's cross, I bought all (except for Book 5 - too $$ for a short story) so I will have them on hand when ready. So, The Drifter, here I come.
This tale is a sweetly naÏve, charming description of a couple's relationship and survival through economic hard times in Berlin 1932. It is a response to social stories of the day, of bleak futures on the horizon as poverty, conflict and social disorder dominated everyday life. Fallada draws on his observations of many Berliners left jobless and despairing by the depression. In 1932 when Little Man, What Now? was published, 42% of German workers were unemployed and further cast into desperation as unemployment support was cut. Realism dictates the themes of the novel as Fallada illuminates the essentially invisible day-to-day struggles of staying above the breadline, the terror of being on the thin edges of employment, and the fear of financial insecurity while trying to provide for a family. His fictional world of Berlin was praised as "no fiction at all," but rather an authentic report of life - a novel for 'the people.'
The novel's strength is in the acute perspectives and observations of its characters, mainly through Johannes Pinneberg, a man of little means; and his wife, Lammchen, as they confront an unexpected pregnancy, the contentment and wonderment of the newly-wedded, the fulfillment of work regardless of its meagerness, the anxiety of unemployment and then utter despair. Pinneberg finds joy in the prospect of becoming a husband and father, but hopes of providing for a family turn dismally in a string of unfortunate events. "Down the slippery slope, sunk without trace, utterly destroyed. Order and cleanliness, gone; work, material security, gone; making progress and hope, gone. Poverty is not just misery, poverty is an offense, poverty is a stain, poverty is suspect.”
Pinneberg's love for Lammchen, who rises above her proletarian parents; his confidence in her judgment; her courage and steadfastness when her husband becomes one of the 6 million unemployed, are validations for the novel. Lammchen, modeled after Fallada's wife, the levelheaded and stabilizing influence of his life , Anna Issel: shines as the novel's equally supportive and incorruptible heroine. “But you know, money isn’t the answer. We can get by, and money isn’t what’s needed. It’s work that would help Sonny, a bit of hope. Money? No.”
Fallada deliberately restricts political tones, although the more astute reader might recognize, buried within the folds of the story, a clearly developed political context of the time. He concentrates more on the couple's romantic idylls, contrasting those with despair and hope, irony and humor, the ups and downs of daily life, never allowing their troubles to completely overwhelm them. Even in the moment of Pinneberg's dejected, lowest point, Lammchen's bright outlook won't allow it.
And suddenly the cold had gone, an immeasurably gentle green wave lifted her up and him with her. They glided up together; the stars glittered very near; she whispered: 'But you can look at me! Always, always! You're with me, we're together..' It was the old joy, it was the old love. Higher and higher from the tarnished earth to the stars.
Fallada suggests no resolution to the dismally urgent situation of unemployment, but as he often does in his novels, leaves the reader with a glimmer of hope; in this case to ponder the question: 'What Now?'
You’re still here because in life you were responsible for a great wrong.
Set amidst the political turmoil and upheaval of China in the 1930s, with Chiang Kai-Shek and his Nationalist party on one side and the Communist Party of China on the other; with Westerners holding China ransom over opium and the impending arrival of the Japanese and their bombs – you get this story, of Song Leiyin, third daughter of a prominent family, who grew up in the seclusion of the Song family home. For some mysterious reason she is now dead, but her soul remained on earth because, as she was told:
You must understand the damage you did. Then you must make amends to balance the ledger. Only then can we ascend together to the true afterlife.
Leiyin was an adaptable character, but she adapted because she had little choice. She was also very selfish, but we could be selfish when we’re in love. And Leiyin was in love; she loved someone she could never marry, because her family supported the Nationalists. The handsome Hanchin, on the other hand, was a leftwing poet and translator, supporter of communism ideologies. But Leiyin was no Anna Karenina, and Three Souls is no passionate love story – she had the option, to run away and live the hard life, or to marry the man her father chose for her.
I nearly DNF-ed at this point because I’m used to characters that would choose the former option, and it just didn’t feel right in this case – it did not fit her characterisation. I didn’t think Leiyin had it in her – spoilt youngest daughter of a rich family, and while character development was possible (and did happen, to another character), I was glad for her sake that she took the other option. And I notice she did not wonder – much - about the road not taken.
Two stars, because the story was just alright. Readable, but not especially entertaining … a bit dull, like Pinghu, the town her father sent her to. The rural hometown of the family he arranged her marriage with. An oasis in the middle of war.
All at once it came to me that Pinghu had given me the serenity of ordinary days, a quiet pond set in the chaotic landscape that was China. For as long as it could hold back the inevitable intrusion of war, I would cherish its simple pleasures.
I’m the sort who prefers to read about characters in the thick of the action; through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered (quoting The Labyrinth 1986 film); which in this case would follow Leiyin’s friend Nanmei, whom she fell out with when the latter went to college and Leiyin was married off instead.
How wonderful, my yin soul says. To be in love with your husband before the wedding.
Reading about arranged marriages made me sad. It was the norm in those days, when people marry for wealth and political reasons, for connections than for love. Both Leiyin’s sisters suffered this fate, and one of them found happiness while the other did not – reflecting two common outcomes of such unions.
This town, this marriage, they were not what I had imagined for myself, I tell them. But I had a husband who loved me with great devotion and a daughter we both adored. It was enough. I was content.
And of course, this lovely moment was the calm before the storm. Leiyin, as you would recall, is dead of mysterious reasons, and she would have to review her life (70% of the book) and then figure out how to fix this "great wrong" (the remaining 30%) and my pet peeve was the way the epilogue ended.
Off-screen. The kind of ending whereby the narrator tells you what will happen. It doesn’t get shown to you – and being sceptical, like I am – I don’t have Leiyin’s conviction that she will ascend to the afterlife “tomorrow”. If the events turn out differently, if she was wrong, it would be horrible. She’d be doomed to stay on as a hungry ghost, roaming about without her souls, with no rest and no purpose.
Yeah, I prefer book endings all wrapped up nicely in a bow. There’s no accounting for tastes, after all.