Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Short Treatise on the Joys of Morphinism by Hans Fallada Review

Hans Fallada was a German writer from the first half of the 20th century who struggled alternately with addiction to alcohol, morphine, ether and cocaine for most of his adult life. This small book collects two autobiographical stories - Short Treatise on the Joys of Morphinism and Three Years of Life - the first of which is a harrowing account of his time as a morphine/cocaine junkie, and the second addressing his self-imposed jail-time for stealing to finance his alcoholism.

Of the two, Short Treatise is definitely the best. It’s a day in the life of Hans, who wakes up hungering for morphine, and we follow his journey to salve that hunger. Going from his cheap lodgings, he meets up with a fellow junkie desperate for a fix and the two try to fill fake scripts at various pharmacies, all while their pains are getting more unbearable. Hans decides to try his luck on his own, going to a doctor for a morphine injection, and from there it’s a nightmarish descent from needle to needle until his fickle lady - the drug - embraces him fully.

It’s a short 18 page story but it’s one of the most gripping accounts of drug addiction I’ve ever read. Fallada’s writing is so intense that I was actually on edge and nervous the entire time I was reading it, feeling as jittery as Hans was as his anguish over withdrawal enveloped him. I breathed deeply once he got his fix but, once again, Fallada whips up more tension as Hans goes looking for more drugs to shoot into his veins, this time finding cocaine… It’s a bitterly ironic title with little joy to be found in the drug habit.

Three Years of Life is tangentially about addiction. Fallada is so desperate, he decides to beat his alcoholism by spending time in jail. He’d been falsifying accounts and stealing money to finance his addiction and turns himself in to the police. This is surprisingly difficult to do at first as the police think he’s just another delusional wino, but eventually he gets thrown in the slammer and from there it’s an often dreary account of how he survived in prison.

It’s actually more about nicotine addiction than alcohol as Fallada spends quite a lot of the story talking about how cigarettes become currency in prison, the difficulty of finding a light inside, and the various disgusting ways an addict satisfies his needs. If Short Treatise is a pedal-to-the-metal frenzied ride through the blazing madness of drug addiction, Three Years is an uncomfortable but still amiable stroll through the inanity of prison life and the constant search for cigarettes. It’s a much less interesting story but illustrates the still further difficulties that Fallada’s addictions put him through (and would eventually kill him. Fallada died of a morphine overdose in 1947).

This is worth a look for the white-hot writing of Short Treatise but there are also some passages that stand out in Three Years. If the first story is five stars and the second three, let’s split the difference and call this a four star read.

Short Treatise on the Joys of Morphinism

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