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.