“On Tuesday, 14 August 1928 von Arnim planted a bullet in the body of Pussi Uhl”: no, it’s not The Sopranos but instead a classic German novel of the criminal demimonde of the Weimar era.
Franz Biberkopf is fresh out of prison, where he drew a few years for killing a woman. A low-level criminal otherwise, he finds himself in a different world, one in which Nazis are beginning to occupy the stage and people are lining up to take sides all around him. He flirts with fascism, but so does everyone; one of his confidants is outraged that a friend married an American woman who turned out to be a “Negress” and who, when confronted with the fact of her ancestry in divorce court, tried to sue for damages. "Gorgeous woman, petal-white, descended from Negroes, maybe dating back to the seventeenth century. Damages.” Franz soon tires of politics, even if he buys the newspaper with “the green swastika on the masthead” and believes its lurid tales. Meanwhile, he makes halfhearted efforts to live a straight life, mostly because, as one chapter title tells us, “The Police HQ is on Alexanderplatz,” the Berlin square that Biberkopf haunts. Still, he can’t help but fall back into bad habits. There are other characters at work along the Alexanderplatz, though, more fantastic as the Ulyssean story progresses: at one point, anticipating Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, two angels accompany Franz, “two angels on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz in 1928 alongside a former manslaughterer, then burglar and pimp.” They provide clarity, for now death is stalking Franz—and everyone he knows and the whole of Berlin. American readers will have to adjust their ears to the translation’s frequent use of Cockney (“Well, who’d’you fink, the fat girl, coz I had no goods left on me”), but Hofmann’s version is vigorous and fresh, bringing Döblin to a new generation of readers.
A welcome refurbishing of a masterpiece of literary modernism, one of the most significant German novels of the 20th century.