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Mesmerized by Germany

Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos
An East German soldier looking through the Berlin Wall, 1990

There has been no more potent symbol of division than the Berlin Wall. It not only divided ideologies, but seemed to separate two incompatible eras of history. To pass through Checkpoint Charlie or Friedrichstrasse station into East Berlin was to travel back half a century, and when the Wall began to come down in November 1989 the two Germanys that confronted one another had been drastically estranged for nearly forty-five years.

The eminent Dutch travel writer, poet, and novelist Cees Nooteboom was a close witness of that time, temporarily living in West Berlin, and his chronicle of the city—written before, during, and after the Wall collapsed—forms the heart of Roads to Berlin. His book, a profoundly atypical work of travel literature, is Nooteboom’s most complex literary creation: the fruit of twenty years’ experience and thinking about a city and a nation (two nations) that have proved peculiarly resistant to travel description.

The reasons for this resistance are not hard to seek. The country is haunted by a recent history that all but obliterates the legacy of earlier, richer centuries. Writing about travel classically records the visible, the tangible: its reflective passages arise from descriptions of the material world. But Berlin, Nooteboom writes, is a city of absences. The past saturates it, unseen: it broods in

the force of attraction exerted by vanished squares, ministries, Führerbunker, torture cellars, the no-man’s land around the Wall, the deadly sandbank between the two barriers that was called the Todesstreifen, the death strip—all of those places where people and memories have been sucked away. Berlin is the city of the negative space….

If this seems exaggerated, you have only to walk along the central artery Unter den Linden to sense how uneasy Berlin seems with its own past. Its old buildings appear to have run aground senselessly out of a time more distant than it really is. It comes as no surprise that the city’s most charged modern building, Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, enshrines a terrible absence.

The structure of Nooteboom’s book only slowly becomes apparent. It opens with the memory of an early journey into East Berlin, in 1963, for an event that seems at once infantile and old-fashioned, when Nikita Khrushchev, hosted by the Democratic Republic’s diminutive leader Walter Ulbricht, delivered a Party speech.

Then the narrative moves to March 1989. It is only eight months before the Wall starts to crumble, but Nooteboom arrives in a city where a reunited Germany seems light years away, and—in a book that is thankfully unmediated by hindsight—he does not anticipate it. His record of this time is muted. His clipped sentences and rhetorical questions are voiced in the urgent present tense, but nothing happens.

Berlin then was still a ghostly political cul-de-sac. Nooteboom’s tone of voice—philosophical, sometimes almost dreamy—creeps up on the reader piecemeal. And by October 1989, everything is changing. Ulbricht’s successor, Erich Honecker, was a hard-liner whose counterparts in the Eastern Bloc were faltering around him. On October 7, East Berlin was treated to the astonishing spectacle of a liberalizing Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, greeting his reactionary East German comrade, Honecker, with an infamous kiss. “The country that was unimaginable without the Soviet Union,” writes Nooteboom,

is being kissed by the country that has made it possible to imagine the death of the DDR [East Germany]. The orthodoxy inherited from Lenin and Stalin is being kissed by heresy…. One man represents one of the greatest adventures in history, a revolution that the other man perceives as betrayal of the Revolution.

Little more than a month later, at a time of contagious euphoria, the Wall is opening. Nooteboom hears the news on a taxi radio, and the driver switches off the meter and makes for the Brandenburg Gate. East German cars are moving westward almost unchecked and a vast crowd is swelling and dancing in the lamplight. The people are making history.

In the weeks that follow, Nooteboom witnesses a counterdemonstration of the Party faithful, defensive and uncertain now, and the last-ditch negotiations of the DDR. Party leaders were still maneuvering for power. Many of the names—so vivid in 1989—have drained away into history: Egon Krenz, the momentary successor of Honecker, swearing that the Party will never relinquish power; Hans Modrow, who followed him, failing in three months—while the din of pneumatic drills sounds all around them from both sides of the Wall.

Roads to Berlin reflects the intoxication and sometimes the fear of those days, when to be present—part of “the ongoing conversation”—was an unforeseen privilege. But its narrative continues into regions of anticlimax and disillusion as the Western juggernaut bears down on the sheltered lives of the East. In Nooteboom’s brisk summary of the two countries’ recent pasts, one had become rich

while the other became poor, one was helped and the other exploited, one was forced to carry the mental burden of the past, and the other the material burden, with all the mutual resentment that created. To what kind of music should these two peoples, who are almost one, but not quite, dance their duet?

Inevitably, as the drama eases, the impetus of his book begins to slow. His residency in Berlin ends, but he returns from time to time to register the city’s changes: the growing contempt of West Germans for Easterners, a vague sense of unreality, the enigma of a haunted city still thrust into making history, unable to move easily in the present.

By 1997 the scar of the vanished Wall is being covered by building sites. The talk now is less that of politics than of the cost of reunification—sounds of West German complaint emanate from “the depths” of what Nooteboom, in a moment of vivid disdain, calls “the sacred piggy bank.” By 2008 some towering showpieces of modern architecture are filling the gap between the two cities, and the old Palast der Republik, heart of the vanished DDR, is coming down in dust. The Dutch writer, by now, feels himself a visiting stranger. Democracy is taking its course, together with a kind of healing. The fury of 1989 is starting to give way to the banality of the everyday.

Nooteboom takes a river cruise along the Spree, and notes with relief the modesty of the new chancellery building, seat of the third-largest economic power in the world. Inside that building the chancellor is a woman: an East German pastor’s daughter. As the author floats beneath the Moltke Bridge, the swords, trumpets, and heraldic griffins that adorn it seem a grotesque anachronism. To Nooteboom the German miracle is not that of recovery, but of acceptance. The country “has succeeded, as far as such a thing is possible, in coming to terms with one past through grief and understanding, by realizing that it will never entirely disappear.”

Just as this densely engaging book starts rather pallidly, so the tension of the journey loosens toward its end with less urgent pieces, with touches of repetition (and a tinge of self-importance), and with a final plea for German and European unity.

More than a reporter, more even than a traveler, Nooteboom is a poet. His writing is lyrical and densely textured. He is a poet of time and memory. If Roads to Berlin has an underlying subject, it is history: the past that lives in the present. It pervades all its author’s perceptions. He knows that historical explanations mean little to the people around him—“normal people occupied themselves with the future or with the drifting ice floe they called life”—but for him, in a book that marries authoritative reportage to subjective musings, history is the key to understanding.

This search for the past in the tissue of the present is almost a disease, he writes, and he explains it through his childhood. When he was six years old the German invasion of his native Holland obliterated everything he might have remembered before. So the silver eagle glittering above a gray army of marching men remains his earliest, terrifying image:

The men back then had helmets that almost covered their eyes, so that all expression vanished from their faces and they lost their individuality, exchanging it for an unbearable similarity in which each of them became the other.

Nooteboom modifies this moment’s trauma by citing the family chaos of those years: evacuation, starvation, his parents’ divorce, his father’s death in a British bombing raid. All this left him (he recalls) fascinated by the lost past, by transience and memory. And Berlin, for him, is an enormous mnemonic in stone. “Sometimes I think this city does it on purpose—the constant intermingling of now and then….” His obsession with time amounts to an almost Proustian yearning. “When a memory fails to appear,” he writes,

it seems as though the time when it was created did not really exist, and maybe that is true. Time itself is nothing; only the experience of it is something. When that dies, it assumes the form of a denial, the symbol of mortality, what you have already lost before you lose everything.

The Europe he knows and warily loves, of course, is a charnel house of memories, “exhortations to mourning or contemplation.” He sometimes sees the German people, especially the old, as walking histories, like those of the former Soviet Union or Maoist China. Fascist, Communist, Stasi informer, dissident: a person might have been any of these, or several. In other passages Nooteboom displaces himself too, remembering a younger persona, “the Traveler,” on an earlier visit to Munich. This rather arch device allows him a youthful openness to fantasy, in which he playfully ignores the mundane instructions of the guidebook he remembers carrying. He imagines joining a flight of storks overhead, spreading his wings unnoticed at the rear of the formation, yet feeling a little guilty. Then he contemplates the huge foot of an allegorical female statue seated below the Maxmonument (statues obsess him) and envisages the figure standing up with a clashing of bronze, as if a symbol could stir into flesh and blood.

The controversies around Berlin’s remolding—What architecture could be appropriate in the ex-capital of the Third Reich?—have been aired already in the work of Jane Kramer, and in Brian Ladd’s The Ghosts of Berlin. Nooteboom’s obsessions lie more with diagnosing the past. He does what many travel writers instinctively do: he chooses the sites or events that seem eloquent about a perceived national psyche. Plays, lectures, art exhibitions—all are grist to his imagination’s mill. Above all, his narrative is interspersed with excursions out of Berlin in search of those historic places that will speak most evocatively: Weimar, Nuremberg, Dresden.

Some of these sites belong with ancient myth, with the stories that a people tells itself. They smack of quaint folklore or carry a dark importance, depending on the visitor. Nooteboom evokes their odd power, then subverts it with a wry twist. In the Harz Mountains he stands in dense clouds at the site of the Walpurgisnacht ball, where the witches damned Faust, but notes that the surrounding railings might have caused the witches landing problems. He delves into the cave system where the medieval emperor Barbarossa sleeps in a secret grotto, to awake only when Germany is united. A statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I, flanked by the god of war, was erected here by Prussian nationalists, and Nooteboom wishes the whole pile of nonsense toppled.

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