Berlin Trilogy

The Berlin U-Bahn, like the New York subway, is a surprisingly easy place to feel alone. People avoid eye contact in the crush, and the German announcer’s voice has a lilting softness at odds with the language’s guttural reputation. For the year I lived in Berlin, the U-Bahn was where I spent time in my own head, easing into the day. It was unusual when, riding the U1 through Kreuzberg, my faux-solitude was interrupted by the onset of paranoia.

New East Side Novels

Berlin Trilogy
Olafur Eliasson, Your new bike, 2010. (C) 2010 Olafur Eliasson. photo: epha, via Flickr
  • Chloe Aridjis. Book of Clouds. Grove/Atlantic, Inc. March 2009.
  • Iris Hanika. Treffen sich zwei. Literaturverlag Droschl. February 2008.
  • Anna Winger. This Must Be the Place. Riverhead Books. August 2009.

The Berlin U-Bahn, like the New York subway, is a surprisingly easy place to feel alone. People avoid eye contact in the crush, and the German announcer’s voice has a lilting softness at odds with the language’s guttural reputation. For the year I lived in Berlin, the U-Bahn was where I spent time in my own head, easing into the day. A life-long city-dweller, I was used to the tacit communal pact of public privacy, a pact that made it okay to treat the worn vinyl benches like the armchair in my living room. It was unusual when, riding the U1 through Kreuzberg one day, my faux-solitude was interrupted by the onset of paranoia. I couldn’t stop worrying that people were appalled by what they were seeing over my shoulder. I was reading The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell’s ghastly novel of Nazi sadomasochism. The issue wasn’t so much the brutality of the novel—though it certainly didn’t help matters—as that I was reading about Nazis, in English, in Berlin. I was afraid of being taken for one of those tourist voyeurs, unable to see Germany for anything but swastikas.

Two recent novels by Berlin expats take up the outsider’s relationship to the city’s past: Chloe Aridjis’s quietly contemplative Book of Clouds and Anna Winger’s hopelessly pat This Must Be the Place. Published just months apart, both take as their subject young expatriate women in Berlin, unsure of quite how they got to where they are. When Book of Clouds opens, Tatiana has been in Berlin for five years, working odd jobs and test-driving life in the various trendy new neighborhoods of the former East. In This Must Be the Place, we meet the equally directionless Hope, a New York transplant who has followed her businessman husband abroad. For both characters, positioned at a break point from their own pasts, Berlin might as well be Narcissus’s pool.

That Berlin should start cropping up in novels is not surprising. With the wall now twenty years fallen, the city has somehow managed to stay the Next Big Thing for a near decade running. Rent is remarkably cheap—the city is still about a million short of its pre-war population of 4.4 million—and the range of readily convertible industrial architecture makes Williamsburg look like a hipster LegoLand. Gentrification, while certainly under way, has been slow simply because there was, and still is, so much ground to make up. The bohemian dream of the writer-artiste comes off as limitless, not only existentially but spatially: the occasional squatters-vs-Polizei skirmish notwithstanding, it’s easier to pretend development doesn’t mean rising costs like it would anywhere else. Everybody you meet is either a graphic designer or a DJ.

No article on Berlin is complete without the media’s favorite sound bite from the city’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, so here it is: Berlin is “poor but sexy.” It is, in fairness, a reasonable assessment of the city’s economy. Unemployment currently stands at about 12.5 percent, and that’s without the aimless expat populace for whom work is a relative term. Berlin has transformed its poverty into a kind of cultural capital—its rough edges keep the city at the artistic vanguard, a bastion of cool within a nation that has otherwise assumed economic leadership of the E.U. This is not, for obvious reasons, a sustainable situation: with art comes money comes development, and already the city has made way for new condo complexes. (One particularly egregious example, on the city’s famed boulevard Unter den Linden, calls itself “Upper Eastside Berlin.”) But at least for now, Berlin remains the best of both worlds—a playground with gravitas on its side.

Behind office buildings on side streets in Mitte, the grassy path of the divided city’s death strip—the stretch of empty land studded with menacing watch towers between the wall’s parallel ribbons of concrete—still slices through the cityscape, not so much a scar as a parenthesis. Cities tend to have their apex of glam, at least where literature is concerned—the Bohemian dereliction of 19th century Paris, Bloomsbury London, New York with its Jazz-Age sheen. History’s aggressive march through Berlin has meant that its moments of self-fashioning are always cut short; somehow, it manages to teeter always on the cusp of transformation, without ever quite arriving. The advantage of this suspended state is that the city never gets fixed in time, leaving its image available for reimagining.

Book of Clouds, the first of the two English-language variants on the “Berlin-Roman,” can feel like an essay disguised as a novel; there is little in the way of event. Aridjis’s interests seem to lie less in fiction-making than in exposing the ominous layers of Berlin’s history and how they hide in plain sight. Tatiana, inward and solitary and closed off to anything that might demand emotional investment, is Aridjis’s perfect set of eyes. A Mexican Jew freed of ties to her home, her only real relationship is with Berlin. She spends her days in a willful isolation, wandering streets and documenting the urban landscape with an attention that verges on anthropological. Her job as a research assistant to Doktor Weiss, a once-famous historian of war-scarred Berlin, only encourages her preference for the morbid.

Part of the pleasure of Book of Clouds (at least, admittedly, for the self-indulgent expat) is its catalogue of Berlin minutiae: the yellow tramcars of the former East; the looming orb of the TV tower at Alexanderplatz; the Prenzlauer Berg Altbauten, Berlin’s pastel answer to brownstones, which line the gentrified quarters of the city’s erstwhile cultural frontier. But these details are never without their ghostly counterparts. The converted water tower in Tatiana’s neighborhood, now housing condos, turns out to have been a torture site for anti-fascist prisoners of the SA. (This happens all the time in Berlin: I spent a summer living opposite a former Stasi interrogation center without realizing it.) For every cozy local bar in Book of Clouds, there is another space that can’t quite hide its latent creepiness. Tatiana’s only foray into Berlin’s youthful nightlife, a party in an abandoned post office, ends with her lost underground in a former Gestapo bowling alley.

History’s hold on the city is, as Aridjis has it, inextricable from Tatiana’s own stasis. “Ever since arriving in Berlin, I’d become a professional in lost time,” Tatiana muses. “It was impossible to account for all the hours. The hands on clocks and watches jumped ahead or lagged behind indiscriminately. The city ran on its own chronometric scale. Days would draw to a close and I would ask myself what had been accomplished, how to distinguish today from yesterday and the day before.” “It wasn’t,” she observes later, “an industrious kind of solitude … but rather a stagnant, infertile one which bred only more stagnation and infertility.” Hers is the quintessential expat experience: time spent on the spending of time.

It’s a dilemma I sympathize with. It is easy, in Berlin, to find oneself in the grip of an uncommon inertia. The city’s topography, at once absorbing and alienating, makes for a distracting plaything. It’s hard to capture the physical strangeness of Berlin, but I’m confident that it’s the only cosmopolitan European capital where you can get lost in a sandpit for several blocks in the middle of the city on the way to a party. This bizarre openness—the feeling of expansive space in an urban environment—has the additional effect of distending time. There is none of the compressed bustle that keeps a city like New York moving forward.

For Tatiana, the city’s playful side holds less interest. In place of people and relationships, she feeds her obsessions with the city’s macabre shadows, abetted by Doktor Weiss. Into this gloom steps Jonas Krantz, a meteorologist from the former East, whom Weiss sends Tatiana to interview about some childhood drawings he’d done: ants crawling beneath the Berlin Wall towards freedom. Krantz is a stalwart representative of the Berlin of now. “Weiss dwells too much on the spaces that were,” he observes. “But Berlin can’t just be a museum of horror. There has to be a regeneration.”

In Aridjis’s novel, those who would have the city remain a museum of horror win the day. As Tatiana and Weiss make their way from Jonas’s remote apartment, two thugs attack them only to be cast into confusion by the onset of a mysterious fog—the clouds of the title come to ground. The cover of this strange weather prompts record-breaking crime in a city where bike theft is usually the worst threat. Journalists seize upon the fog’s symbolic potential, drawing, in Aridjis’s words, “the obvious parallels between the city’s past and this bizarre meteorological phenomenon.” (“Berlin in New Crisis of Erasure,” reads a heavy-handed headline.) And Tatiana? She moves away. She doesn’t overcome her ghosts so much as leave them behind.

Like Book of Clouds, This Must Be the Place wears its metaphors heavily. But while both books rely on German history to provide the scenery, Winger’s has none of Aridjis’s grace. Hope has arrived in Berlin, grieving after a miscarriage in the wake of September 11th. With her husband off running a pornography-meets-microfinance scheme in Poland, Hope finds herself, like Tatiana, in the company of the city’s phantoms. The novel opens with a description of a typical pre-World War I Berlin apartment building, whose history is that of Germany writ small.

Its architect had designed the apartments to be Villenetagen, villas on every floor, prime real estate, because Berlin’s future had been promising in those days. Although most of the building had since been blown up or burned down, ninety years later its balconies and trellises, mullioned windows and inner courtyards designed to provide views from almost every room still hinted at the optimism of its origins…In other places, such a building might have seen only the soft swell of progress, but here? Ninety years of drama, followed only by this.

What “this” is is not entirely clear, but given that these words close the prologue, one can only assume that “this” means the rest of the novel. And here begins the problem with This Must Be the Place: Winger presents German history (and September 11th) as if Hope’s arrival in Berlin represents the culmination of the city’s teleological destiny. She is in New York, hibernating in despair over her lost baby, when the planes hit. “When she came out of her downtown building to see people covered in white powder running for their lives, she had not been entirely surprised to find the outside world finally reflecting her inner chaos. Maybe Berlin was an opportunity to start again.”

A Berlin at peace with its ruinous past—this is how Hope learns to see the city. She knows little of its history when she arrives, and the filling in of these details can take on a didactic quality. Her neighbor Walter, a washed-up actor whose friendship with Hope gives the novel its center, doubles as a guidebook. “The city was divided into four zones: Russian, British, American, and French,” he lectures. Hope discovers that the walls of her home aren’t made of plaster but of Rauhfasertapete—a kind of white, textured wallpaper beloved by cheap German landlords—and that beneath the walls are layers and layers of old wallpaper, witnesses to the lives of past inhabitants, which Hope begins—wait for it—to peel away.

The problem with expatriotism is that it is, by nature, recursive. The whole point of the experience is to experience the experience. Ironically, it was I, and not my German roommates, who suffered from that famous German syndrome: Mauer-im-Kopf, or “wall in the head.” I knew the path the Berlin Wall had traced only two blocks from our Kreuzberg apartment; my roommates did not. They took their out-of-town guests to the natural history museum; I took my bewildered visitors to barren patches of park where the concrete Mauer used to stand. I got the distinct sense during my year in Berlin that the preoccupation with history’s physical imprint on the city was an Auslander phenomenon.

The strangeness of this paradox didn’t fully sink in until I got home, settled back into a world that didn’t beg for constant interpretation. I was reading a recent Berlin novel in German—a requisite exercise in nostalgia, perhaps—and kept noticing how much more organically history found its way into the pages. Held up against Aridjis’s and Winger’s novel, Iris Hanika’s Treffen sich zwei, makes for a study in contrasts. Writing from a local vantage, where the city is and has always been engrained in the texture of daily life, Hanika has a luxury her foreign counterparts do not: she can allow Berlin as metaphor to take a backseat to Berlin as setting. Unlike Tatiana and Hope, Hanika’s characters—Senta and Thomas—move through their Kreuzberg environs as if it were any other place. They are Berliners on the cusp of middle age, settled into their routines if not quite their futures. Senta is a gallery-worker with a troubled relationship behind her, Thomas an IT consultant absorbed by the latest developments at work. Berlin is present, but not as a conceit.

Still, history is not altogether absent in Treffen sich zwei—it can’t be. Of the border between Kreuzberg and Mitte, Hanika writes: “This was once the Death Strip, where there’s now a garden—the most vital bond you can imagine cementing together, perhaps forever, two parts of [the city] that knew nothing of each other for so long that they now face each other as strangers.” Surely there is more than a hint of metonymy here—this aside is sandwiched between longer descriptions of Senta and Thomas—but Hanika writes with an ironic distance that reminds us that her characters are only characters, with no real selves at stake. It’s her metaphor, not theirs.

To a certain extent, Berlin’s secondary role in Treffen sich zwei isn’t so much a function of Hanika’s being German as it is of her distinctly postmodern touches. The title—loosely translated as “When two meet,”—hints at her preference for the schematic. Where Aridjis and Winger work within a traditional arc of self-discovery, Hanika is dealing in archetypes: her characters are not individuals trying to construct their own self-image, but cogs in the cyclical machinery of meeting, misunderstanding, and reconciliation that are the sentence of every relationship. The novel begins with a scene cut straight from a slow-motion romantic comedy fantasy sequence: Senta and Thomas meet in their local bar, immediately fall for each other, and just as quickly mess the whole thing up. Senta has a melodramatic propensity for tears; the technologically minded Thomas is oblivious to her emotional highs and lows. Their relationship proceeds pretty much as you’d expect.

Hanika’s Berlin history also dares to venture beyond the familiar destruction of the 20th century. Instead of abandoned Nazi torture sites, the novel gives us the Landwehrkanal, the commercial shipping channel, dating from the 19th century, which cuts through Kreuzberg. Such historical asides are simply one of many formal games. In addition, we get song lyrics, a sex manual, a script, a disquisition on computer programming, and an overwrought impression of Elfriede Jelinek. Hanika’s experimental gamesmanship can be irritating; her riffs on stock forms of language may be deliberate in their hollowness, but that doesn’t make them more digestible. When Hanika describes Senta and Thomas imagining they’ve been struck by Cupid’s arrows—“lodged in their hearts with unsurpassable precision”—she’s still dealing with Cupid’s arrow.

As players in Hanika’s fragmented pastiche, Senta and Thomas read as linguistic vehicles, empty of past. Hanika on Thomas: “It had still never occurred to him that he had an exclusive place in the world.” And in a way, it’s because he doesn’t. Senta and Thomas are but two iterations of a pattern that will doubtless repeat itself. They lack the permanence that Tatiana and Hope try to claim for themselves by linking themselves indelibly to the city.

Of the three novels, Book of Clouds wins for literary merit. But there is something uncomfortable in the English versions of the “Berlin-Roman” that Hanika’s novel, with its aggressive playfulness, avoids. That Aridjis and Winger put a traumatic history at the service of an individual psyche—and an outsider’s psyche at that—raises questions of appropriation. Do they, and by extension the expat, get to make a claim on this particular history? Berlin is not Paris or Rome; it doesn’t have the romance of a dusky Montmartre or the faded glory of antiquity. The smoky demimonde of Isherwood’s Berlin came and went with the war and Bowie’s jangling counter-culture with the Wall—much as the city’s new artistic face may approximate them. What is unique to Berlin is how much its history is still living. It remains visible, and not merely as an artifact of times long past. There is, of course, more to Berlin than just history, but part of its contemporary image is the calculated interplay between past and present: the recently reopened Neues Museum with its preserved bullet wounds; strips of worn concrete Mauer along the Spree; the Holocaust memorial, just blocks from the former site of Hitler’s bunker, deliberately striving to isolate and disorient its visitors. The city asks us to remember what it was.

The Berlin of the present exists in a state of rare double-consciousness, hurtling into the future while keeping a steady grasp on its past. From a writerly perspective, the coexistence of multiple selves is inspiring—what writer wouldn’t want to summon so many layers of injury and experience when creating a character? Aridjis and Winger have both, for better or worse, written books representative of their expat brethren—the city is just one more instrument in the arsenal of their (our?) solipsism. It can’t possibly stay that way forever. As manicured greens and glassed-in apartment complexes crop up in all those empty lots, they need not represent loss or erasure, but simply the city moving on.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles

More by this Author