Berlin Alexanderplatz

Carlos Zilio, PRATO, 1972, industrial ink on porcelain, ø 24cm
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By FRANCISCO DE AMBROSIS PINHEIRO MACHADO*

Commentary on the novel by Alfred Döblin

First published in 1929, Berlin Alexanderplatz it can be considered the first big-city German novel of literary stature. It was widely accepted by the public, soon receiving new reprints and translations in several languages. It was also well received by most of the critics at the time, praised, among others, by Robert Musil, Arnold Zweig, Erich Kästner. Even Thomas Mann recognized that his arch-rival, Alfred Döblin, managed to elevate the proletarian reality of that time to the sphere of the epic. Heavy praise. But is it really an epic of the proletariat?

The book certainly tends towards an epic rather than a novel. This was Döblin's proposal, made explicit in his theoretical writings in which he proposed, since the 1910s, to resume Homer as a way to overcome the crisis of the subject and of the bourgeois psychological novel. Following Döblin's position, Walter Benjamin identified, when reviewing the book, what is at stake in this opposition: while the novel is based on the solitude and isolation of the individual closed in on himself, on the written book and on the separation between novelist and reader; the epic has its origins in oral tradition, part of a community between narrator and listener, its characters are exemplary and face an elementary and real situation of human existence, lending the narrative a character of practical, collective and open teaching. Döblin sought to materialize this proposal in several works, such as my, from 1927, an epic in verse set in India. but it was with Berlin Alexanderplatz who really found a modern form for what he was looking for.

The intense presence of the Berlin dialect (unfortunately difficult to translate) gives the book the orality characteristic of an epic. Furthermore, as the reader soon realizes, the book is not structured in verses or based on material coming from distant seas, lands, heroic and mystical times. It consists of a dense montage, in cinematographic style, from the collage of all kinds of period documents: excerpts from sensationalist newspapers, the bible, the diary of a depressed person, public dispatches, court cases, popular and patriotic songs, prison regulations, advertisements, bus fare prices, description of the public transport network, scientific books, urban statistics, meteorology.

Nothing arbitrary montage, as shown by Benjamin, which gives authority to the epic action and which, according to Döblin, allows one to get as close as possible to reality, more precisely, to what he defined as super-reality (Über-reality), in addition to the factual. They are documents extracted from the hectic and multifaceted life of Berlin between the wars: an industrial megalopolis of four million inhabitants, devastated by the political and economic instabilities of the Weimar Republic. Berlin was for Döblin a “sea of ​​stone”, in which he collected the material for his book. He gleaned it, above all, from the life that seethed around Alexanderplatz, the square near which he lived and had his doctor's office, located in a commercial area, surrounded by petit bourgeois neighborhoods, tenements and decadent areas of prostitution and banditry.

Between the latter and in this square, the story of Franz Biberkopf, the protagonist of the narrative, takes place. Döblin's concern, when writing the book, was with the social problem of these men “between classes”, in this sense, his modern hero will be above all ambiguous as his social milieu, the lumpenproletariat. He is not, therefore, an ancient hero, of noble rank, exemplary for his courage and refined virtues with which he worthily defends his city and takes charge of its destiny.

Biberkopf is a simple man, even a good one, physically strong, in some ways brave but without vision, naive and brutish. He defended Germany as a soldier in World War I and was a construction and transport worker, but was later jailed for four years for beating his partner, Ida, who ended up dying. Upon leaving prison – the narrative begins here – he settles down with difficulty in Alexanderplatz, feeling really free only after having forced Ida's sister to have sexual intercourse with him with some violence.

Without reflecting or feeling guilty about anything, he proposes to lead a decent life and makes a real effort to do so. But due to his naivety, soon the social environment to which he belonged, as if possessing the force of destiny or natural law, prevents him from fulfilling his intention. First he is deceived by a colleague. Then he gets involved by mistake in a robbery with a group of thieves and ends up losing his right arm because of Reinhold, one of the thieves. At this point, unable to understand what is going on and unable to resist such setbacks, Biberkopf gives up and decides not to be decent anymore, deliberately becomes a pimp and seems fine with his new life. He even participates in meetings of left-wing groups and anarchists, but first to defend his status as a scoundrel, proud of being neither a worker, nor unemployed, nor bourgeois.

He voluntarily joins the same group of bandits as before, reconnecting with Reinhold, whom he considers his best friend despite everything. This one, however, cruelly kills his companion. Biberkopf ends up in an insane asylum. In full delirium mortis  manages to assume his guilt: “I am guilty, I am not a human being, I am an animal, a monster”, and he dies.

But the narrative does not end there. Döblin also recounts the rebirth of another Biberkopf, who leaves the asylum, becomes a factory porter's assistant, leading a decent life. Awakened, he seems to have understood – here is the epic teaching – that alone he cannot overcome destiny or the social environment that prevent him from being decent, at the same time it is not a matter of marching blindly with others, it is necessary to know who he unites with before acting accordingly: "Men have been granted reason, oxen form a guild."

A not inconsiderable teaching if considered as an alarm against fascism and Nazism, but still ambiguous for not taking a definite political position, thus causing discomfort among critics on the left at the time. For Benjamin, there is also a lack of definition here between epic and novel, as Biberkopf, cornered and passive in the factory guardhouse, abandons his exemplary character and isolates himself from the reader. Döblin admitted the improvised character of the ending, saying that it should be understood as a bridge to another book, which would probably include the proletariat, as he suggested in conversation with Sternberg and Brecht.

However, what would in fact be an epic of the proletariat was not written. This fact, in my view, challenges – especially today's readers – to understand the ambiguity of the end of this quasi-epic not as a weakness that falls short of the unparalleled social and epochal portrait it offers, but as an opening that leaves us with the teaching precisely of an unresolved task. A warning against other types of totalitarianism.

*Francisco de Ambrosis Pinheiro Machado is professor of philosophy at Unifesp. Author, among other books, of Immanence and history: The critique of knowledge in Walter Benjamin (Ed. UFMG).

Reference

Alfred Doblin. Berlin Alexanderplatz. São Paulo, Martins – Martins Fontes (https://amzn.to/3OUc7hI).

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