Tag Archives: Philip Boehm

Berlin Stories

‘Berlin is all about volatility. Its identity is based not on stability but on change,’ according to Rory MacLean’s Berlin: Imagine a City. In May this year I made my first visit to Berlin. Everywhere there was building, tramlines outside our apartment, construction on a grand scale on every street. I was rather disappointed that so much of its history seemed to have disappeared.

Brandenburg Gate, May 2014

Brandenburg Gate, May 2014

Checkpoint Charlie was a mock-up in the middle of a shopping street. I think the guards were actors. The Brandenburg Gate was swamped by foreign tourists, all aged about 20 and too young to remember the divided city, the Blockade, the Wall, escape attempts, JFK announcing, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ and its breach in 1989 … Berlin is a city of history but its past is being made faster than in any other city I know in Europe. This evolving history is reflected in its restlessness, its rewriting.

What do these books have in common?

What do these books have in common?

Books about Berlin reflect this.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada.

Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann

Written in a white heat in 28 days immediately after the end of the Second World War, the novel concerns the many ways in which the Nazi (and by extension totalitarian regimes of other kinds) distort life and appeal to base instincts and un-communitarian practices.

The Quangels lose their son early in the war and the father embarks on a small protest of writing postcards with anti-Nazi and anti-Hitler messages. These small acts of rebellion provoke different reactions among the people with whom he comes into contact: his wife, the Gestapo investigator, people who pick up the cards and others in prison. Even when the Quangels have been caught they are able to protest in their own way, although the system tries to hound them to the end. Small acts of kindness, organised resistance, decency of the people caught up by the regime but able to soften its effects from time to time – this is the source of redemption.

It is the conductor, with whom Otto Quangel shares a cell, who speaks to the title. So many acts of resistance but each one undertaken alone. If only they had been led, coordinated, then they might have amounted to something. And the novel addresses the issue of the purpose of struggle where the outcome is doomed. But Otto and his wife and others show that the struggle itself is worth it, to keep one’s integrity: you do what you can in the circumstances you find yourself in. It may not change anything. But the point is to struggle.

Fallada based his novel on a true story, which was well documented, as so much of Nazi Germany was. He died soon after writing it.

121 W in Berlin

A Woman in Berlin: Diary 20th April 1945 to 22 June 1945 by Anonymous

Translated from the German by Philip Boehm

A journalist begins her diary at the moment when the Russians advance on Berlin can be heard in the city at the end of the Second World War in Europe. She lives in an apartment block, and increasingly her life is limited to the block and then to the cellar. Her job has gone and safety is absent from the streets (US air raids are also a threat). The residents listen to rumours and the sounds of the advancing Red Army.

Within days the Russians arrive and everyone must decide how to respond to ‘Ivan’. The women are especially vulnerable to rape. The diarist is quickly raped, being fit and about 30. Fat women are also in demand (although there are few of them left). For several days as the Red Army celebrates the apartment dwellers must respond to the drunken and lascivious men. The diarist quickly decides that if she is to be raped repeatedly she should find a protector who will treat her decently. First Anatole, an officer with bear-like qualities and then the injured but cultivated Major become her protectors. Now the air raids have finished she stays with ‘the widow’ and her lodger in a first floor apartment. She records the visits of the many Russians who come through their apartment, most bringing supplies (especially alcohol), some bring interesting conversation.

As the conquerors begin to re-establish order lives, quickly change and then the diarist must do labour for the occupiers, mainly laundry and dismantling German factories ready for transport to the USSR.

Then there is the hope of job on a new publication, and finally her boyfriend returns, not seen since 1939. They try to connect. He is horrified by the complicity of the women in the rapes – as he sees it. He leaves and you get the sense that, as with so much else, they have to leave each other behind and move into the new post-war Germany.

The themes of the book are to do with how people behave in chaos, how order restores itself, especially for the conditioned German population. And how to deal with the fallout of rape for women – collectively and in writing.

In a post in September 2014 I called this a ‘hard to read book’. It was partly based on the comments of my travel companion, Fiona, who was reading it while we were in Berlin. It was hard, but the humour, courage and resourcefulness of the author made it worthwhile. I refer you to Clarissa’s comments on the post about this book and the author.

Holocaust Memorial, Berlin, May 2014

Holocaust Memorial, Berlin, May 2014

Three others to mention:

Magda by Meike Ziervogel

9781907773402frcvr.inddA novella, about Magda the wife of Joseph Goebbels, at various episodes in her life. One concerns Magda’s imagined time in Berlin under Russian rule – the period covered by A Woman in Berlin. The book is a psychological study of how abuse rattles down the generations and through institutions especially the family, the Catholic Church and National Socialism, which is presented as a religion. It’s vivid and raw.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood.

This collection of six sketches form a roughly continuous narrative. The book is ‘an ironic and compassionate picture of Berlin during the death throes of the Weimar Republic and of the foreign birds of passage who were drawn there temporarily for one reason or another,’ according to the Times obituary (1986) tucked into my copy. Isherwood lived in the city during the early 1930s. Cabaret is based on his memoirs. This was an exciting place, where the art was experimental, pushing boundaries, where excess and excitement lured the experimental and the young.

128 Goodbye cover

Stasiland by Anna Funder

After the fall of the wall and the end of the control of Eastern Germany and East Berlin by the communists, the citizens had to live with their past, and the way in which the Stasi had corrupted everyone, created its own state of secrets: Stasiland. Anna Funder is an Australian who researched and wrote about the lives of people who lived in the Stasi state, before and after the fall of the Wall.

 

What I notice about all these books is that they are all based on fact, even the novels draw on real events. It is as if Berlin’s history is rich enough, does not need to work much on its fiction.

Here’s a link to Ten of the best books set in Berlin chosen by Malcolm Burgess.

What would your Berlin stories be? I’m going to Amsterdam next week. What are the best Amsterdam books?

 

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Those hard-to-read books

There are books that are challenging to read. I often fail. I’m not talking about impenetrable, long, arcane books (say James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake or William Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom!). I am referring to the fear of my reactions, my reluctance to explore difficult situations, often involving violence, and violence against women in particular. So difficult subject matter then.

Here are two books I thought I would never start to read, let alone finish.

The Child in Time by Ian McEwan.

121 ChildThis was the book selected by the reading group I had just joined. So I had to read it. I had always thought that the theme would be too difficult for me. A toddler goes missing at a supermarket. She’s gone. A nightmare for the parents. What happened to the child? How could I read a book that raised that terror for me? And that is McEwan’s genius, to take an aspect of middle-class life and subvert it, utterly. I enjoyed the book group.

 

We Need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver.

‘Have you read it?’ my friends would ask. ‘It’s about-‘ I knew what it was about. How could I read about those high school massacres? Why would I want to follow members of the school community who randomly kill their schoolmates? It was bad enough to read about them in the papers, but to explore such an incident seemed perverse. But after some years I did.

121 KevinI found Kevin to be something of a tour de force. The questions raised by a hard-to-love child, about parenting, even when your child has committed the most heinous of crimes. Shriver tackled these bleak themes with creativity and insight and, as in the best fiction, it changed my understanding.

 

 

 

Here’s a book I never thought I would finish, but I did.

Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall, translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm

121 Kof HI started this novella and laid it aside as too excoriating and then began it again later. It was included in my subscription to Peirene Press. A book from them is always a treasure, even a hard to read treasure. The story follows a woman who was both Polish and Jewish searching for her husband in the Second World War. I was horrified by the erosion of moral behaviour, of impossible dilemmas, all in the pursuit of love. The accumulation of atrociousness is told in a rather bland, flat style – one thing after another – which made it possible to finish it and to ponder the mystery of what humans do to each other.

Here’s a book I started but don’t imagine I will ever finish.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Another war, more horror, more violence, more unspeakable atrocities. At least that is what I think I am avoiding. I enjoyed the first half, about Nigeria before the Biafran War. But I’ll leave it there, thank you.

Here’s another book I have started and I’m not sure I will finish.

121 W in BerlinA Woman in Berlin, anonymous author.

These are the diaries of a journalist in Berlin as it falls to the advancing Red Army towards the end of the Second World War in Europe. Will I be able to read the first-hand account of what the soldiers did to the women?

 

Here’s a book my friend says, ‘I’m still not reading’.

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks.

Well then, I’m not reading it either!

121 Wasp

You can find a list of the top ten most difficult books on a Guardian blog by Alison Flood: The world’s most difficult books: how many have you read? My answer is one!

The same list is described in more detail on the Publishers Weekly website.

 

Am I a wuss for avoiding and recoiling from the narration (fictional and factual) of humankind’s appalling behaviour, especially in wartimes? I don’t know. What do you think? Are there any books you can’t read?

 

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