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Travel Reads: 4 Great Books Set in Berlin

Books and travel: they rock my world. When I dive into literature from or about a particular destination, my cultural experience of travel is magnified. Friends and colleagues are always asking me for holiday reading recommendations and, since I’ve just got back from Berlin—a city I love and hope to visit more often—I thought I’d write about 4 great books set there.

1. A Woman in Berlin, Anonymous

Soviet War Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin. Copyright Suchita Shah 2018

I’ll start with this because, frankly, it’s an astonishing memoir that everyone should read—regardless of whether or not you’re going to Berlin.

Towards the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Red Army took control of Eastern Germany, including parts of Berlin, as part of a victorious Allied force that carved Germany into zones of occupation. What’s rarely mentioned in the history books, however, is the mass rape of up to 2 million German women by the Red Army and other Allied forces during this period.

Hardly pleasant subject matter; however, the way this diary is written, by an anonymous former journalist who experienced the Red Army trauma first hand over a period of months in 1945—brave, humorous, dignified, incisive—turns an otherwise unbearable read into an unforgettable page-turner.

It sheds light on the struggles of daily life (bombings, thefts, shortages of food, fuel and bare essentials), as well as the resilient, pragmatic, and often morally complex methods employed by women to survive. Incredibly, the author views her experiences in the context of the atrocities committed by Nazi soldiers; whether this is a highly compassionate, or dispassionate, way of making sense of the senseless, is anybody’s guess, but it moved me to tears.

While we don’t officially know who wrote this diary, the evidence points to a woman called Marta Hillers, whose life is nicely documented in this blog. Although it received a stony reception in Germany on initial publication in the 1950s, A Woman in Berlin became a posthumous bestseller, with a movie of the same name released in 2008 starring Nina Hoss.

What this memoir brings to light, for me, is how women often bear the worst brunt of conflict. It offers a rare female testimony to sexual violence in Allied occupied Germany, and voices a different opinion from “it’s a deliberate weapon of war” as to why these soldiers committed these crimes. In my view, it’s a must-read for all women, but also for anyone out there who thinks there are winners in war.

2. Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck

Jenny Erpenbeck is a German writer (and, rather brilliantly, also an opera director) born in the former East Berlin. Visitation is a sweeping allegorical drama that charts the fate of a house by a lake in Eastern Germany. Through the years, from the 1800s to reunification, the house shelters various inhabitants: an architect, who builds it but has to escape to West Berlin after the war; his wife, who is raped by a Russian soldier; a Jewish family who own the adjoining bathing house, which they sell to the architect at a steal while escaping the Third Reich; two writers who have fled to Russia and return as Communist party members; their granddaughter, who witnesses things she shouldn’t alongside her childhood friend; and an omnipresent gardener, who maintains the land from season to season. No one has a name.

The prose is cyclical and (deliberately) repetitive, with almost obsessive levels of detail about mundane things, like building works; time is elastic and ambiguous, and the narrative shifts back and forth in time—all of which can be confusing, particularly because of long sentences and occasional stiltedness. I found this novel to be refreshingly different, profound, and beautiful in many places, although not an easy read. I nearly gave up a few times. On the whole, the plot and characters seemed subservient to the message and mood, and yet as an allegorical piece it was a haunting reminder of the impermanence of things and the fragility of time and life.

“Four walls around a block of air, wresting a block of air from amid all that burgeoning, billowing matter with claws of stone, pinning it down. Home. A house is your third skin, after the skin made of flesh and clothing.”

3. One clear, ice-cold January morning at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Roland Schimmelpfennig

This first novel by Germany’s best-known contemporary playwright is set in Berlin and surrounds. A wolf has made its way from Poland across the frozen river Oder and is edging closer to the city. Its path intersects a cast of characters living in the interstices and margins, including two young runaways and their troubled families, a corner shop owner, a Polish labourer and his unfaithful girlfriend, and a woman who burns her mother’s diaries in the middle of the night. Their crisscrossing timelines mirror the path of the almost-mythical beast, and its journey illuminates their own.

What struck me most about the writing was the frequent, repetitive mention of place names (towns, streets, squares, stations) with hardly any use of human names (“the boy”, “the girl”), which sometimes became confusing because there were so many characters. However, it painted a very detailed map of Berlin, highlighting its linearity. No curves in this city.

“It seems as if there’s nothing but straight lines, all paths are set out, you can’t deviate from the grid.”

It reminded me of Elizabeth Strout’s novels, with a bunch of different characters and storylines, all interconnected—but without much resolution. There were also too many characters for each to be fully developed, and because of this, the novel didn’t connect with my heart as much as I wanted it to. I wanted another 100 pages.

It’s set in icy-cold Berlin, which contrasts with the latent fire in people’s hearts. There is a wolf, which I assume is a device or metaphor—but for what, I’m not sure. A threat simultaneously hypothetical and real, and a catalyst for individual and collective action, the wolf seems to make its way around the periphery of the former Berlin Wall; there are a few scattered references to the former East Germany, along with a lot more about migration, which, I suppose, is a key theme. All in all, whilst worth a read, to me this felt more like a screenplay than a novel, and left me a little chilly.

4. Stasiland, Anna Funder

Stasi Museum, Berlin. Copyright Suchita Shah 2018.

To round up my collection, here’s another non-fiction book. It is a collection of stories about real lives in the former East Germany (officially the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR)), a Communist state about which little was democratic. The book was written by an Australian journalist, who started it in 1996 (six years after the re-unification of Germany) as a writer-in-residence in Berlin, and published it in 2003. I would thoroughly recommend it—and I say this with begrudging admiration, because I instinctively found the author’s perspective a little steely.

The book paints a distinctly negative picture of life in the DDR, largely through its focus on the Stasi (secret police employed by the state). This focus, in itself, is reasonable, and even virtuous­; however, reading the book I wondered whether Funder had, in retrospect, reconstructed her own narrative to appear more benevolent than she might have been in reality—especially to characters in the book like Miriam (who tried to escape to the West aged 16 but was imprisoned, then relentlessly yet in vain tried to find out the cause of her husband’s death in a Stasi prison) or Julia (her landlady, who turned up at random times to retrieve various articles from the flat, and turned out to have suffered great trauma). It is these people, and the stories themselves, that are the illuminating, heart-breaking soul of the book.

Funder uses physical descriptions to highlight her like or dislike of people: good people have their beauty noted, bad people have their physical traits somewhat unkindly emphasised. In trying to present the Stasi as unique in their thinking and methods, she either paints them in stark relief against the rest of the world (without mentioning similar, or worse, things that were simultaneously happening elsewhere) or she paints them in a vacuum, failing to contextualise with the historical or environmental factors that shaped their evolution.

Recently, I went to the DDR museum with a friend who grew up in East Berlin. We came across a film clip showing two people doing the ‘Lipsi’, a popular dance originating from Leipzig. In her book, Funder visits the former offices of the East German television station and finds an old video tape of the same dance. Her lengthy opinion on what she sees culminates in this summary: lipsi is “a dance invented by a committee, a bizarre hipless camel of a thing.” When I first read this description, before my visit to Berlin, I had scribbled in my copy “not sure about this” (which is British for “I disagree”). Later on, watching the dance for myself in the museum, and with my friend’s perspective (it’s just two people dancing! Stop fetishizing my life!), I thought: wow, it really is possible to over-sharpen a political lens on the world, to see what you want to see.

Despite all the caveats, this is a bold, well-researched read, with beautiful prose and astute observations. It also dares to counteract the “Ostalgie” of recent years—a “nostalgia for the East” that manifests itself in tales of crimeless communities with generous welfare, or kitsch displays of Trabants and tinned food presumed to represent life in the DDR—by unearthing some terrible realities of living under what was, essentially, a dictatorship. Yet, in its single-mindedness and, ultimately, its outsider retelling of selected stories from the Inside, this book risks undermining the very truths it seeks to uncover.

That's my lot! Please share if you liked it :-) Happy reading!


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