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 …