As the first floor of Dussmann Kultur-Kaufhaus dedicated to literature on Berlin expands with more and more Berlin novels and non-fiction books (now it also has a whole new, two-level store-addition of English books), and as more and more people feel the desire and necessity to write about Berlin, I try to follow their creations and publications in order to trace what they have to say about this city. Here are some of the new trends and works I’ve found:
Juleska Vonhagen‘s collection of 33 short stories narrating life in Berlin, which she describes as Germany’s “largest youth hostel”(p.13), while one of her narrators describes Berlin as “no place for old people” (p.36). In all the compiled stories, whose narrators are in their early to mid-twenties and have recently moved to Berlin from primarily former West-German states to study (as yet for free) at one of its many universities, Berlin is presented as a city where one shouldn’t act as a new-comer, even if one is indeed a new-comer (p.56). It is presented as a bitterly cold city in the winter, despite the 100 Euros Begrüβungsgeld, which the Berlin state forks out to every student registered at any of the educational institutions in Berlin (p.71). It is also presented as a city to which one moves in order to be there for everything that others only get to see on TV, to witness the “big life” (das groβe Leben), and to maybe even change something (das groβe Ganze), but mostly everyone just ends up “standing by and watching” (p.84). Berlin is narrated as a city where to meet extraordinary people, a city where one has to challenge life, and to be active and to break with one’s own boredom and sheltered existence (p.185). The narrators know the city well. They go to trash-parties at Magnet (p.241), fashion shows at Bebelplatz, cafés and bars in Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, and they continue to discover the Berlin one doesn’t know from TV (p.274).
In one of the perhaps most interesting observations, two protagonists discuss life in Berlin: “Berlin is an Autobahn. If you crash here, you really crash.” “You see it all so extreme and bleak. You can live an average-speed-life here as well as anywhere.” “Yes, but then I could just as well live anywhere else” (p.276).
Berlin as Germany’s youth hostel and Autobahn is a new image for the formally ruined, divided, reunited, and reconstructed city. Berlin as “the place to be” (as the be Berlin campaign proclaims) is designed to attract international talent and creativity. Vonhagen collects some of the voices that populate the city (and its universities) today. This is her second collection of stories narrated by her friends and acquaintances – the first one, Herz Mist (2009), was a collection of 33 stories of young women’s conversations about love, sorrow, and passions. While Vonhagen does not demonstrate the strongest writing or conceptualization skills, her work is nonetheless an interesting contribution to the Berlin cultural discourse.
Juleska Vonhagen, Groβstadtfieber: 33 Geschichten vom Auswandern in die Hauptstadt – Neuberliner aus ganz Deutschland erzählen. Berlin: Schwarzkopf & Schwarzkopf, 2011.
Anselm Neft’s Die Lebern der Anderen (2011) are funny stories by another formerly West-German protagonist who decides to move to Berlin (from Bonn), and to stay until the newspaper editors will offer him jobs, East-German girls will fall in love with him, and the cold winters begin to seem like a fresh breeze, in short: until Berlin has become too small (p.9).
A definitely noticeable new trend in Berlin is to make fun of the new inhabitants of the now-fully gentrified Prenzlauer Berg: young urban professionals with their hoards of kids. Neft constructs comic scenes observing Yuppie parents at the playground at Helmholzplatz (p.23), whole main concerns revolve around baking spelt cookies (p.24) at the local Biomarkt, and teaching their children English early on, so that they don’t end up “in one of those schools with all the immigrant’s kids, and later end up working in a factory” (p.27). Offending the Yuppie parents’ prejudiced sensibilities, the protagonist contradicts those parental aspirations, by letting the young Franziska he is babysitting collect cigarette butts for him and rewards her with more fun and no school, so that she “doesn’t end up at a school with such assholes” (referring to the Yuppie parent) (p.27).
His adventures as a German teacher slash match-maker to all kinds of foreign nationals are just as amusing. The first lesson, unfortunately lost in translation for all languages not based on a Latin case system: “Nominativ? Akkusativ? Wer kennt die schon? Und wen interessiert’s?” (p.30).
Using Berlin as a setting for his witty stories, Neft constructs laugh-out-loud funny episodes and simultaneously comments on Berlin’s changing and internationalizing inhabitants and locations.
Anselm Neft, Die Lebern der Anderen: Geschichten aus der Groβstadt. Berlin: Ullstein, 2010.
Pascale Hugues is a French correspondent in Berlin, who for a while wrote the Tagesspiegel column”Mon Berlin.” As for many foreigners writing about Berlin, there is a tendency to write about certain places and cultural curiosities with a sometimes naive fascination of an outsider, which also reveals something about the author’s own cultural background – not so much in what is described, but the choice of words, the tone, stylistics – perhaps a hint of Parisian snobbishness in this case, evident in phrases like “fassungslose Ossis” (stunned East-Germans, p.130) and sentences like “Anders als Paris, Rom oder London verzaubert Berlin uns nicht. Berlin hat kein schönes Gesicht,”(Unlike Paris, Rome, or London, Berlin does not charm us. Berlin does not have a nice face, p.12) and “Ganz anders Paris, diese unversehrte Schönheit.” (So different is Paris, that unscathed beauty, p.186).
Mostly, it becomes evident from this recent publication (published in 2009) how rapidly Berlin is changing when many of the observations and descriptions are no longer accurate or valid: “Berlin is nicht elegant, nicht raffiniert, nicht reich” (Berlin is not elegant, not refined, not rich, p.12). This statement is already obsolete. Friedichstrasse, PrenzlauerBerg and Kollwitzplatz, 4% economic growth in the last year despite world-wide economic recession, and unemployment reduced by 7% also despite the crisis – these are just a few examples of Berlin’s (often bitterly contested) upward mobility. The author references Café Adler at Checkpoint Charlie and the memory of the Cold War (p.130). By the time the book was published, the café was replaced by the Einstein Kaffee chain.
Hugues describes Berlin as the city of anarchy, and Berliner dialect as the “last rebel of Berlin” against globalization. She describes a sense of nostalgia hovering over the former center of West-Berlin around Bahnhof Zoo, Café Kranzler, and Zoo-Palast cinema that has been replaced by the “functionalist supermarket of Potsdamer Platz” (p.50). She also writes, that living in Berlin, one gets used to its “ugliness,” its holes, its rushed constructions, its torn fabric (p.186). She merely contrasts Berlin with Parisian wholeness and beauty, in a modernist, hierarchical, and comparative narrative. What she fails to notice or mention is that the Berlin she wishes to juxtapose is no longer there; the ugliness has been gentrified, the holes are being built over by international investors and developers, the rushed constructions are being torn down to make way for even newer buildings, the voids and wounds of Berlin are being covered up by glass facades.
In regards to nostalgia, she fails to notice that there is new type of nostalgia now: not Ostalgie, and not even nostalgia for the old West-Berlin, but a nostalgia generated and manufactured by decades of change and transformations, a fear of over-gentrified controlled spaces. Perhaps, a nostalgia for Berlin in the years just following reunification, the vacuum, the unclaimed space of freedom and creativity, the unaccounted space, undesirable and unsold. The author does not speak of that Berlin, and that is why I would call her account of the city out of date.
Pascale Hugues, In den Vorgärten Blüht Voltaire: Eine Liebeserklärung an meine Adoptivheimat. Trans. Into German by Elisabeth Thielicke and Jens Mühling. Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 2009.
Another author attempting to draw connections between Berlin and Paris is the Romanian writer Carmen-Francesca Banciu, who moved to Berlin with her three children in 1991. In the second edition of Berlin is my Paris (2007), the author narrates her experiences in and of Berlin over the years after leaving her native Romania. Her narrative begins at Café Adler, where she writes her books and contemplates Checkpoint Charlie as a “metaphor for absurdity” and “representation of divisions” (p.9). She contemplates the changes in the world since the end of the Cold War, she muses over philosophical concepts of identity (p.44), and examines the translatability of languages.
She retains a critical distance to her own sense of loss (of her language, her past) and nostalgia, and finds a positive energy in the new start and the new life (p.45). “Es gibt kein Heimweh, wenn es keine Zerrissenheit gibt. Und ich bin schon lange nicht mehr zerrissen.” (There is no homesickness when there is no feeling of being torn. And I have not been torn for a long time, p. 113)
In her comparison of Berlin to Paris, she writes, “Paris is established, while Berlin is unpredictable, unique” (p.43). She came to Berlin, the way her former fellow citizens used to go to Paris, “to measure one’s strength with the world” (p.49). Her initial encounter with Berlin resulted in a break down. Communication breakdown. If one cannot express oneself, she writes, then coming to Berlin was for nothing, then even Paris would not help (p. 51).
She writes, “Berlin is not yet Berlin” (p.51), just as she is simultaneously a part of it, but not yet herself (p.53). Every person has to grow, she states, grow to transcend oneself. But does every generation have to have its own war for that? (p.108) She remains contemplative about Berlin and about herself, asking “who am I?” (p.152-53) and building bridges between her experiences, herself, her language, and Berlin.
This is perhaps the most insightful and original of the books reviewed here, and I recommend it to everyone interested in Berlin and its literary representations.
Carmen-Francesca Banciu, Berlin ist mein Paris: Geschichten aus der Hauptstadt. Berlin: Rotbuch Verlag, 2007.