Tuesday, 20 November 2012

All Roads Lead to Berlin

While I had a very detailed plan for German Literature Month, I am always open to suggestions, so when I received another unrequested surprise package from Maclehose Press, I was happy to take the bus on a detour.  Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom is also a well-regarded travel writer, and his latest offering in English is very relevant to our November travels.  Looks like we're off on another trip to the capital...

Roads to Berlin (translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson) is an updated version of a book Nooteboom wrote over twenty years ago.  Back in 1989, the writer received a government grant to spend a year or so in (West) Berlin while he was writing a book about Germany.  In what turned out to be excellent timing, his stay in the country (during which he wrote columns about his experiences) turned out to coincicide with one of the pivotal events of modern history - the fall of the Berlin Wall.

We read it as the writer experiences it, a series of philosophical musings, dated at the end of each section, leading up to the day in November when he returns to Berlin from a reading tour to find the city in uproar.  The borders are opening, people are streaming across from the East and the wall itself is about to be turned into one of the longest dance floors the world has ever seen.  Unknowingly, Nooteboom has been writing a countdown to history...

It's an emotional time, and the reality is yet to sink in:
"As I write these words, church bells are ringing out on all sides, as they did a few days ago when the bells of the Gedächtniskirche suddenly pealed out their bronze news about the open Wall and people knelt down and cried in the streets.  There is always something ecstatic, moving, alarming about visible history.  No-one can miss it.  And no-one knows what is going to happen."
p.72 (MacLehose Press, 2012)
However, once the initial euphoria dies down, reality kicks in, and people begin to question whether this is such a good thing after all.  The 'Wessis' worry about an influx of poor migrants and the possibility of higher taxes; the 'Ossis' wonder what exchange rate they will receive for their massively overvalued Ostmark and whether they will be able to keep their jobs in this brave new world.  And Nooteboom is there to write it all down.

Roads to Berlin is an updated version of Nooteboom's book, supplementing the original work with chapters from later visits to Berlin and various pieces of writing connected with the topic.  After the main event, the writer also branches out a little, turning his Berlin-centred story into a wider, German collection.  In trips to Munich, Regensburg, Weimar (home of Goethe) and the Teutoburger Forest (where, crossing paths with Heine's journey northward, he sees the great statue of Hermann), Nooteboom indulges in his interest in art and architecture - and, of course, history.

It's an excellent book, one I enjoyed dipping into immensely, but I do have some reservations.  For one thing, Nooteboom is a writer who appears to be writing primarily for himself, and he often takes his story in directions which may interest him a little more than his readers.  There were times, particularly when he became sidetracked by paintings and statues, where I was very tempted to skip a few pages (the reading equivalent of having a pint in the pub while your partner checks out an art gallery).

The other issue I had with the book is that it felt like exactly what it is - a slightly uncohesive collection of writings which, while tangentially connected, fail to make up an integral whole.  After the first 100 pages or so, I was never quite sure what Roads to Berlin was meant to be.  Is it a book about Berlin (or Germany)?  Is it mainly concerned with history, geography or politics?  Is it really about Germany, or more about Nooteboom himself?  I really couldn't tell you...

If you're prepared to overlook the (necessarily) messy nature of the book though, there's a lot here to like.  Nooteboom is an accomplished writer, and each of the pieces, taken separately, is of enormous interest to a reader who wants to know more about the topic.  Part of the credit here must go to Laura Watkinson as you really forget that Nooteboom is speaking to you through a third party, such is the quality of the translation.  The voice that comes through is consistent, and very similar to the one I found in a novel I read earlier this year (Lost Paradise).

One idea that comes across particularly clearly is that despite inauspicious beginnings (Nooteboom's first memory is of the Germans invading the Netherlands...), the writer is very fond of Germany, particularly Berlin, and regrets a little the fact that he is no longer a part of the history being made there:
"What happens in this city in the coming years in the coming years will continue to interest me, but when you are not there, you no longer belong.  You drop out of the ongoing conversation, the options, the constant regrouping of possibilities, memories, expectations..." p.201
It's a feeling many people share when they leave a place they have lived in for a long time.  I have similar feelings whenever I look back at my time in Germany, knowing that however much I read and watch the news, I can never quite regain the connection I once had.  In this way, Roads to Berlin, as much as being a story about the city, is just as much a book about a memory of once being a part of its story...