On November 9th the world turned its attention to Berlin, as the German capital marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But now that the celebrations are over, why not do your own literary exploration of the city?
Berlin is vibrant and edgy, and many who travel there say there is something just a little bit special about it. I have no doubt that it is Berlin’s history, and the city’s former divison, which makes it so.
Berlin is a practical kind of place. If you are sitting outside a cafe or bar and the weather turns a little chilly, you will be handed a blanket by the staff to keep you warm. If there is a stretch of wasteland alongside the River Spree, someone will turn it into a Jamaican beach, complete with bars and hammocks, and the authorities appear to allow it to happen. Sometimes, just along the side of the road, you will find a caravan selling beer, some white sand and some deckchairs – and what better place to spend a summer afternoon?
And the bicycles! In Berlin – bicycles rule. Heaven help the pedestrian standing on the side of the pavement looking for a taxi. The chances are you are actually on a cycle path, and your average Berlin commuter or adventurous tourist will soon be ringing their bells to get you to move out the way. But I like that. I like a city that thinks cyclists have a prominent place. It’s the practical way to get around, and Berlin supports it.
Unlike many countries, Germany does not run away from its past. The Wall is ever present in Berlin. You can follow its path by tracing a double line of cobblestones around the city. You can visit the East Side Gallery, a 1.3 kilometre (0.8 mile) section of the Wall which is adorned with paintings from artists all around the world. And if you want to go back further into Germany’s past, you can visit the impressive and moving Holocaust Memorial just minutes from the Brandenburg Gate.
Books to read about Berlin
Berlin was divided at the end of WWII, but the Wall was not built until 1961. In the intervening years there was a steady amount of movement between the Soviet sector and the West, and it is in this period that Ian McEwan’s ‘The Innocent’ is set.
From the beginning the locations within the city are part of the story. It is not just vague areas that are mentioned – but actual street addresses. Leonard lives at 26 Platanenallee, he meets his boss at 10 Nollendorfstrasse, and his girlfriend Maria lives at 84 Adalbertstrasse in Kreuzberg.
Kreuzberg is just a few minutes walk from the Soviet sector, where the Wall will later be built. And in The Innocent, it has still not recovered from its extensive WWII bombing. Nowadays, if you visit Adalbertstrasse, you are in one of the hippest and artiest parts of Berlin, a world away from what is described in the novel.
Reading The Innocent there is no shortage of references to Berlin streets and landmarks, as Leonard takes the U-Bahn (Berlin’s underground railway system), drives beneath the Brandenburg Gate, and visits night spots in both East and West.
This is not your usual spy novel, or post-war thriller. McEwan is a writer who concentrates on much of the tiny detail of life – something I have always admired about his writing. Often he describes a scene that no-one has ever written about before, yet when you read it, you wonder why, because what he writes is so universally true.
If you want an intelligent novel that gives you an insight into a specific period of Berlin’s history, then you could do far worse than ‘The Innocent’. I love McEwan’s writing, and his characters remain with me for a long time. But beware – this is not a sweet and innocent novel, despite the name. There were whole pages that I was forced to skip over, because I did not have the stomach to read them. As I said, McEwan has an attention to detail, and when he turns his attention to something less than savoury, you may struggle, as I did, to read it.
You will finish this novel knowing a good deal more about Berlin than when you started, but perhaps you will come to the end with a sense of foreboding, as you remember what lies ahead for this city.
Skipping forward 34 years, we are into 1989, just before the fall of the Wall with Sven Regener’s ‘Berlin Blues’.
This is Kreuzberg again, but instead of bombed out buildings we have late-night bars and clubs, with our hero, 30-something Frank Lehmann either working or drinking in them. Lehmann has a particularly aimless life and cynical view of the world, and in his Berlin, the Wall is something that just exists as part of the everyday goings on.
But we get plenty of detail about Berlin itself. In one scene, Frank has to battle his way down West Berlin’s main shopping avenue Kurfürstendamm. He describes a sea of people blocking his way, and crowds of shoppers filling the pavement. This is not so true along the Kurfürstendamm of today. While there are still people seeking out its trendy boutiques and upmarket department stores, there are now other places to shop that were once out of reach for those in the West. Friedrichstrasse and Potsdamer Platz are close to the tourist heart of Berlin, and many visitors to the city may not get as far West as our hero’s crowded Kurfürstendamm.
Friedrichstrasse does make a mention in Berlin Blues, but in a very different context.
Frank tries to make a day trip to East Berlin after his mother asks him to take some money to a relative living on the other side of the Wall. But it all goes wrong, and before he knows what has hit him, he’s being questioned by the East German authorities in a windowless room at Friedrichstrasse station, a check point between East and West. Today, a visitor passing through Friedrichastrasse Station would have little indication of what must have once occurred in such interrogation rooms.
Berlin Blues will give you plenty of location detail about West Berlin, and if you are interested in a more deadpan, sarcastic look at the city and its people, you may just enjoy Herr Lehmann’s mental and physical meanderings.
‘Book of Clouds’ by Chloe Aridjis brings us to present day Berlin.
This book can be described as nothing less than a portrait of the city. We visit Savignyplatz, Prenzlauer Berg and Landsberger Allee among many other locations. We travel with our protagonist Tatiana as she finds comfort from the recorded voice of the S-Bahn (overground rail transport system) or gets her bearings from the now famous Television Tower at Alexanderplatz. And we share her fear as she hides amongst the 2,700 concrete pillars of the Holocaust Memorial at night, a fear that is easy to imagine if you are ever to visit the Memorial itself.
Aridjis writes in a restrained, lyrical way, making gentle observations about a city she obviously knows well. She explores its present and its past, as she gives us a thoughtful and sensitive account of the city, through Tatiana’s eyes.
These are three very different books set in Berlin, that may well appeal to different kinds of readers. But I enjoyed them all, for both their different perspectives on the city and their different styles of fiction. With the world remembering the fall of the Wall on November 9th, a symbol of the end of communism in Europe, why not take this opportunity to learn more about the exciting and vibrant city that has since emerged.
Have you read any of these books or do you have suggestions on Berlin novels to share? Why not let us know in the comments.
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