Berlin Ghosts and Other Inhabitants: New Berlin Fiction

Many foreigners populating the streets of Berlin, and particularly Prenzlauer Berg, have begun writing about their adopted city, thereby adding to the already-existing, rich, local Berlin cultural discourse, and creating a relatively new trend of expat-fiction set in Berlin. Some of them manage to find something interesting to say about Berlin, others not so much.

Chloe Aridjis’ Book of Clouds (2009) is well-researched, and shows a knowing sensibility to many delicate issues roaming in German consciousness today: Nazi past, East-West relations, Ostalgie. She constructs a perceptive awareness of a nostalgic understanding of our relationship to the past and narration in general.  Her polyglot protagonist of Mexican origins (like the author herself), Tatiana, has been living in Berlin for five years, attempting to come to terms with her own solitude and loneliness, as well as the city’s history and ghosts (and often failing to do so). Tatiana has a personal tie to the history of the Berlin Wall, having been taken by her parents on a trip to West Berlin in 1986, and to a demonstration against the Wall. She even knows where the Hansa Studios are, and which famous musicians recorded there. Through her latest work, transcribing notes for an elderly Jewish historian, Dr. Weiss, and interviewing various Berliners for his research project, the protagonist, and through her, the reader, learns about Berlin and its various pasts. Through the recorded voice of the historian, and the interviews she conducts on his behalf, we are drawn (similarly to the suspense devices used in detective fiction) into the narratives of Berlin.

Yet, unable to handle the gloom of Berlin’s Unterwelten (subterranean remains of both Nazi and Stasi terror, such as bunkers, tunnels, and a “Gestapo bowling alley”), and falling victim to violent aggressors in Marzahn, the protagonist decides to leave Berlin, where she never really managed to feel at home. With her departure, our detective-like or researcher-like exploration of Berlin comes to an end. Berlin is reduced to merely “a phase” in the protagonist’s life.

Chloe Aridjis

Yet it is hard to say with what kind of impression of Berlin we are left. At its most basic level, Aridjis presents the city as a cold, lonely, and even dangerous place, where people can be attacked (yet magically rescued by clouds and fog), where people come in contact, but never really connect on any substantial level, where ghosts are projected onto every-day encounters because of a constant fascination and enthrallment with the past, and subsequently a failure to connect to the present. In a sense, Berlin always remains one-dimensional in this novel.

According to the New York Times Sunday Book Review, written by Wendy Lesser (whose Room for Doubt, 2007, is also partially set in Berlin), “Tatiana’s Berlin is exactly the one you will find if you go there.” I don’t know about that. However, Lesser’s critique of the climax of the novel, where both the Jewish-Mexican protagonist, and the elderly Jewish historian get attached, and then “rescued” by clouds (deus-ex-machina), is accurate: “as a fictional device in a novel about a Jew in Germany, it is just a little too predictable, a little too pat” (Lesser).

Despite its shortcomings, the novel does manage to construct an accurate presentation of many issues at stake. In a conversation with the meteorologist, Jonas, who grew up in former East-Berlin, Tatiana asks him: “How does it feel to belong to a country that only existed , technically, for forty years, eleven months, and three days ?” Jonas replies: “The GDR was an artificial creation.” “And do you ever feel nostalgic for those times?” “Depends on what kind of week I’m having.” “Were your parents in the opposition?” “Not really. I mean, not actively. My father was a physicist. He had many honors. So they treated him well, for the most part. But that didn’t mean he didn’t despair. At the drop of a hat you could fall out of favor. He never knew how far up or how low down he was. Everything felt so arbitrary, so erratic… Again, like the clouds.” “What do you mean?” “Clouds posses a will of their own yet they live at the constant mercy of air currents” (Aridjis, 62-63).

Living at the constant mercy of “air currents” is a successfully constructed metaphor for what it felt to live in the former Eastern Block. The ghosts that the protagonist, as well as many newcomers to Berlin, cannot escape are, as one of the characters whom Tatiana interviews points out, romanticized projections (87). It’s all in the narration. Is it perhaps a new type of nostalgia that is being constructed here? A longing for mysterious (WWII and Cold War) underworlds, veiled by a history fog, which the outsiders never really come to understand, but are fascinated with and thus allow fantasy and imagination to set in and take shape?

Anna Winger’s This Must Be the Place (2008) is a good example of how not to write about Berlin. Called “stealthily original” by the New York Times Book Review (quoted on the cover of the book) – perhaps spoken too soon, or from too far away across the Atlantic – the book does not, in fact, say anything new or original about Berlin (or relationships, for that matter, if that is, in fact, its focus) beyond a tourist’s fascination with random facts and history. Winger’s two odd-coupled, miss-matched protagonists, the West-Berliner Walter Baum, who is the German synchronized voice of Tom Cruise, and who is dreaming about living out his California dream (for the second time), and the third-grade teacher Hope, escaping the post 9/11 New York and a miscarriage to find a less than sunny and only marginally English-friendly Berlin, where her long unhappy marriage finally falls apart.

Both authors come to the same banal conclusion that “You have to make peace with the past to get on with the future” (Winger, 250). Both novels feature Jewish characters. Both address issues of the not-yet overcome division. Winger presents a female protagonist, Hope, who will never really grasp the city; who, unlike the independent Tatiana, needs men in her life, like Walter or her cheating husband Dave, to (mis-)guide her, entertain her, and tell her about Berlin to help her forget New York. In its (now outdated) 9/11 tangent, one of Winger’s characters goes so far as to draw connections between 9/11 and the Holocaust:

Anna Winger

Walter’s East-Berlin friend Orson asks him: “Do you realize the social capital it had to suggest that she was in New York on 9/11?” To which Walter replies: “She isn’t just suggesting. It’s true.” Orson: “But to refer to it like that, in public like that, in the middle of an argument, is a trump card. It is the present-day equivalent to rolling up your sleeve to show us her number” (Winger, 183). This reference has to be explained to poor Hope, who later in the conversation, in reference to the war in Iraq, replies defensively: “Look we have a right to defend ourselves. They started it, remember?” (187).

Both novels refer to ghosts in Berlin. Orson shocks the naive American protagonist: “This is Berlin, Hope. If you start worrying about the ghosts around here, you’ll never sleep again. I mean, who do you think lived in this apartment before the war? A beautiful apartment like this, in Charlottenburg? Where do you think they are now? All the real estate is haunted” (206). At the climax of the novel, Hope peals off the layers of wallpaper in her apartment’s nursery room, to find all the decades leading to (surprise, surprise) the 1930s. And by deciding to remain in her apartment, despite the horrific realization that children were murdered in the Holocaust as well (264), without Dave and without following Walter to California, Hope finally makes peace with the ghosts of Berlin.

These types of (American) sensationalized confrontations with Berlin’s past make me wish that these novels weren’t set in Berlin, because despite how accurate they may appear, that is not what Berlin really is. But then again, the fact that they are set there, points to the new trend in which Berlin is actively entering the global imaginary.

Ralph Martin’s Ein Amerikaner in Berlin: Wie ein New Yorker lernte die Deutschen zu lieben (An American in Berlin: How a New Yorker Learned to Love the Germans, 2009) is perhaps the best portrayal of Berlin among the recent Berlin novels. Although written by an anglophone, it is only available in German translation so far. Martin playfully examines the cultural differences between Americans and Germans. He describes the book on his blog as: “Ten chapters of culture shock that track the stages of grief and ecstasy as I morph from contemptuous ex-New Yorker to lover of all things German.”

Martin portrays Berlin as “the capital of hipness; the creative art- and literary factory” (Martin, 13) and details his attempts to adopt his metrosexual, white-scarfed, New York sartorial sensibilities for Prenzlauer Berg. Adjusting to Berlin, this carefully-cultivated New York fashion sense (a mix of Bowie and Isherwood, whose sexual ambiguity did not occur to him in his New York state of mind) forces him on a fashion quest through the boutiques around Alte and Neue Schönhauser Strassen. Martin claims to have spent all his energy in his twenties on developing his self-esteem and a personal style. In Berlin, however, the wheel of fashion turns differently (41). As his costume-designing friend Annie in New York tells him, in Berlin, fashion is particularly “exigéant” (demanding, fastidious, heavy-handed). Martin interprets the fashion codes of Prenzlauer Berg to suggest a construction-worker look and buys himself a grey, zip-up hoody and yellow Puma sneakers at Carhartt (44).

Ralph Martin

Martin’s Berlin as the “capital of hipness, fashion, and creativity” is very different from the ghost-filled maze of the other two novels. He satirically acknowledges his protagonist’s curiosity about the historical thrills that come from living in close proximity to where the Berlin Wall used to stand, and his indulgence in imagining former spies everywhere (Martin, 15). Yet his protagonist has more important things to do than escape into his own nostalgic Cold-War fiction narrative, he has to learn to live in the present, and that means to become a Berliner.  The challenges of this project, as well as insights into cross-cultural romantic relationships, make up the ten chapters of the book.

Martin provides a rare glimpse into the German psyche and culture: their obsessive need for openness and transparency (17), their attitudes towards relationships, especially in contrast to the North American tendency of avoiding conflict at all costs and the hypocritical need to be polite to everyone (22-23). We find out, along with Martin’s protagonist, that the way to impress a German woman is to be honest with her, because “honesty makes sexy!” (33). And finally, we learn that in order to master the “intercultural split” between the two cultures, one has to be able to pick the qualities from both cultures that suit one best, thereby creating one’s own “inner balance” (107).

Prenzlauer Berg

The phenomena of Americans in Prenzlauer Berg who now write Berlin novels and become part of a Berlin discourse (in some cases by virtue of being part of this self-perpetuating trend) is a relatively new one. Whether working out their own issues with Berlin’s ghosts of the past, attempting to understand reunification, confronting identity fears, which in the German-speaking Berlin literature have been more or less dealt with in the 1990s (and in the Historikerstreit of the 1980s), these novels suggest a new type of interest in Berlin as a global city. They began to surface now because in the 1990s there were no Americans in Prenzlauer Berg; Berlin was still a construction site then, and the world’s attention was not yet turned towards it. Today, Berlin is beginning to be recognized as an open world city, but one, which surprises those who come there expecting to find a black canvas, or a historical rollercoaster though the haunted house of its past.

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3 Responses to Berlin Ghosts and Other Inhabitants: New Berlin Fiction

  1. Pingback: Cool Graffiti Berlin images | The Urban PhotoJournal

  2. Christian Nathler says:

    This is a great article. I just graduated journalism school at Ryerson in Toronto and am doing an internship at Deutsche Welle in Bonn. I plan on moving to Berlin in August (I was born in Jena, Germany) with my girlfriend from Canada. Thanks for the insight!

  3. Kat says:

    Hi Christian,
    Thanks for the message! I’m very glad you liked the article!
    I will also be in Berlin this summer (until July) doing research and writing my dissertation, so you can expect more articles on Berlin!
    Thank you for reading, and all the best in Bonn and Berlin!

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