A Small Circus is a fascinating, bizarre novel set in a provincial town in Germany in 1929. Rudolf Ditzen (pen name Hans Fallada, 1893-1947) creates a microcosm of the turbulent socio-political atmosphere in Germany on the eve of Hitler’s rise. The story revolves around the fraught relationship between rural farmers who live outside the town and the State represented by local government and the police.
The farmers have been nursing a long standing grievance against the State over unfair tax collection policies. One particular incident in which State tax collectors try to repossess a farmers assets for unpaid back taxes goes awry. The fiercely independent farmers consider this the last straw and unite their loose collective to demand their rights and march on to the town hall. The demonstration turns violent as police use disproportionate force. The farmers retaliate by imposing a harsh boycott and halting all relations with the town. Throughout the debacle the mayor and other state officials try to do damage control and maintain their power and law and order. There is an overwhelming confluence of political interests, agendas, and machinations of various party members. There are external agitators and instigators that take advantage of crises for personal gain and career advancement.
And perhaps most interesting of all is the fourth estate’s role in all of this: the mainstream media or in this case the newspaper men. In the story there are about three competing newspapers who all support and represent opposing political parties/ideologies. There is the right-wing/Farmer sympathetic paper, the Farmer’s paper, the State mouthpiece paper and the “whatever is politically expedient” paper. Good journalism to each isn’t about seeking truth, exposing injustice, or at the minimum being banally informational. Good journalism is about propaganda and profit. It could be said that the story’s most important characters are the reporters because they frame events according to their own whims and manipulate public opinion. There are many tense moments between the mayor and reporters over what can or cannot be published and the perks that will be bestowed if obeyed. It is sad to say that today’s main stream media is much the same and most times feels worse. As we are constantly told how ‘democratic’ and ‘free’ and ‘independent’ our media is we experience the exact opposite.
The story has a tremendous amount of dialogue. About two-thirds of the book is a back and forth between the numerous characters. Although I am normally seek out details and descriptions, I enjoyed the heavy dialogue because it created a fast-paced, witty and darkly comedic reading experience. All the ‘talk’ tells the story itself by immersing you in the individual eccentricities, desires and ulterior motives of the characters and how all that crescendos into the absurd politics of the town. It also tested my intellect and memory because there were so many twists and turns in the plot and subtleties that I had to weed out.
This book has been the most unique and challenging read this year. I am now very keen on reading Fallada’s other work, this time in Nazi Germany called “Alone in Berlin.”