Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Berlin: imagined cities

I was asked by the festival to write a short piece about the Berlin I knew, or the Berlin of my imagination. This is what I wrote:

Berlin is a scar healing over. U-Bahn, S-Bahn. It is books and films and images. A kind of chastened opening out as the scar heals. It is the Trabant now stared and smiled at. It is a ruin and a rebuilding, a kind of suddenness bright with commerce. It is the lungs of a voice that once terrified, and killed half my family that now speaks with a liberal conscience. It is dear close friends, a spill-over for Hungarian writers, a late Stalinist joke occasionally laughing at itself. I cannot quite come to grips with it, despite having spent weeks there in previous years, all after 1989. Maybe it is best not understood. When the sun shines we like to walk in the Tiergarten, past the Lustgarten or somewhere in Kreuzberg or Schoeneberg, or go to Potsdam, or look towards Alexanderplatz: more films, more books, more images, more guesswork.

It takes years to understand a city. I think I understand Budapest where I was born, though it continues to surprise me, not always for the better. I think I have a sense of London where I was brought up, though I still feel ignorant of it. Of Berlin I know nothing really. Perhaps we bring imaginary cities with us and live in them wherever we are.

All cities are cities of the imagination. We stand in a few fixed positions, having read our books and seen the films, and imagine their largeness, their buzz, their intricacy, their secret life, their catastrophes and triumphs.

Most of the time walking around Berlin it was the catastrophes that offered the nearest, firmest handle on the imagined city. I kept wondering how badly this or that street had been bombed. It is something like this I had in mind:

Of course, it could be any bombed city, and yet it was Berlin, the spiritual hub of the devastation. That consciousness is the fount of all disorientation in Berlin, even more than the earlier division between East and West (that scar healing over). Certainly it is a fun city, a lively city, a civilised city, a cultured, artistic, intelligent, dignified, liberal, even a warm city now. And yet its architecture still conjures those dream images of all things Germanic - the slight gauntness, the control, the precision, the occasional venture into the expressionist and gothic, and still the discipline, the clean lines. The streets are wide, the pavements wide There is cycling everywhere. Cars are left in the street with a sense of security. All will be well, and all manner of thing shall be well...

I could live there. I could most certainly live there. A number of Hungarian writers already live there, escaping from what they sense is the barbarity of Hungary.

Still it makes a curious noise somewhere deep inside me, nothing more than a curtain flapping, or a fly in the window, yet a distinct noise. The noise of history, I suppose. Imagined history, the imagined flesh on the real bones.


Paul Hellyer said...

I seem to recall reading a quote from Imre Kertész, who lives in both cities, who, when asked how he could live in Berlin given his history, replied something along the lines of "the same way I can live in Budapest". (He might have replied, "You might as well ask me how I can live in Budapest?" - I just can't remember it exactly but the point is the same.) Clearly there is a very interesting cultural nexus at work here!

Paul Hellyer said...

I managed to track down an interview with Kertész where he comments on the issue of living in Berlin. His actual words were, "'Everyone asks me that," replies Imre Kertész when I ask, isn't it ironic that he spends so much time in Berlin? "It's not ironic, because it was in Germany that I made an impact as a writer, where my book was understood and published. I felt I could say something. I could do something. And anyway it was here [Budapest], not Germany, that I first experienced fascism."" Full interview is from the Independent here.

Mark Granier said...

I have never been to Berlin; one of those many cities I'd love to spend some time in, even if only a couple of nights. I was living in London in August 1989. One of my major regrets (as a photographer, etc.) is not traveling over to Berlin for the demolition of that rigid fact & symbol I grew up with; I could easily have gone. A rift, a clearing, a moment of celebration I'd love to have witnessed.

The one seriously reconstructed European city I've visited is Warsaw. We stayed at the Holiday Inn, which, I was informed, was actually erected on ground where part of the old ghetto wall had stood; so the ghost-wall effectively ran though the hotel lobby. What I found astonishing (or disquieting anyway) was that there wasn't so much as a modest commemorative plaque, nothing. As if the horses might be spooked by anything other than complete erasure.

James said...

@Mark Granier: GO NOW - the city's still very much rebuilding after division, and you haven't missed the moment, just its beginning.

And go by train: we Eurostarred to Brussels, then took a DB high speed train to Cologne and then another for the long race across the German plain. Belgium looks like a country in decline - there's no sign for the German border, but it's quite obvious when you've crossed it. Don't get off at Haubtbahnhof - stay on until Ostbahnhof and step out into the quiet of a still unrebuilt bit of East Berlin.

It's still remarkable and unmissable. Just don't leave it another 20 years.

Mark Granier said...

Thanks James, sounds like good advice, and I may just take it, when I can make the time (hopefully not another 20 years hence).

George S said...

No passports anywhere in the Schengen countries hence no need for borders. UK is not party to Schengen so we have to show passports on entry to any other country. Flying on from Paris to Budapest, say, you don't need passport control.

Are you regular to Germany, James?

Poet in Residence said...

I went to Berlin for a week a couple of years ago. The first thing that struck me was that my mobile phone wouldn't work in the East. The second thing was the number of young people on the U-Bahn barriers who begged for the unused portions of my tickets which they could sell-on and buy a €1.00c meal or a couple of beers or a fix of some kind. The third thing was a Bob Dylan type in a rundown bar trying hard to earn a crust. He was pretty good. I recommended a pitch in Galway. Yes, Berlin, it's still very much a tale of two cities. The government, the bankers and the industrialists are spending much on bombast and less on what matters. One day the Germans have to pay dearly once again for it.

Billy C. said...

I've been twice and it's dificult to come to terms with what was and now is. I love the place and yet I felt ghosts were always at my shoulder. Occasionally, just occasionally, you come face to face with them. Daniel Liebskind's Jewish Museum is the sort of place that makes you weep: silently. Why silently? Perhaps it's because if you were to do otherwise, that which was might still be there? Or, more probably, it isn't there but one is too fearful to chance it. An analogy would be a keeper of venomous snakes telling you that his pet has been defanged. I'd take his word for it rather than put my hand anywhere near it. Perhaps my feelings are from an old head. I remember too much.

James said...

Like Billy, I've been twice. Loved it, although I always feel such a total heel for not knowing any German.

Last time, we were there when the new US Embassy was opened, and despite the huge, fun celebration, it was a bum note: they've built what looks like Burnham Hogg's HQ right next to the Brandenburg Gate.

That aside, (oh - and I didn't really like the wealthy shopping district overmuch) - I can't wait to go back.

Poet in Residence said...

Musically Berlin will soon be in British hands. Joining Liverpool's Simon Rattle (Berlin Philharmonic) Edinburgh's Donald Runnicles will shortly take over the Berlin Opera. Just for the record!