Thursday, 6 August 2009

Lyn Marven: Berlin Tales

I'm with The Beat here (or the English Beat, or in fact the Pioneers): What a joy, what a joy, what a joy, what a joy, what a joy tonight!

19 - nineteen! - short stories on Berlin, selected and translated by Lyn Marven. Plus 2 - two! - interesting and informative introductions, atmospheric black and white photos, a short extra reading list and a couple of maps. Who could ask for anything more?

The selection is pleasantly broad, reflecting Berlin's history and culture as any anthology has to do. I was particularly pleased to find my favourite Julia Franck story here, "Family Friend". I once made an attempt at translating it for fun and found it hard to render the surprising ending without explaining too much and spoiling the effect. Marven solves that dilemma with a judicious footnote. Doh! But there are also Döblin and Tucholsky, Özdamar and Maron, Kaminer and Gröschner. Different generations of writers of various origins, united by place.

Apparently it's organised by district, but I can't say I noticed. What I did notice was how well the stories capture the city's atmosphere. Often, they're more about mood than about particular places, something I very much appreciated. Some of the pieces are almost reportage, particularly Döblin and Johnson, while much of the newer writing is more daring or personal. But Wladimir Kaminer almost seems to echo his earlier colleague Tucholsky for irreverent humour.

I enjoyed Larissa Boehning's "Something for Nothing", in which a potential romance sputters out and the characters explore what looks like an abandoned factory but turns out to be a much more Berlinische affair. Inka Bach's "Squatters" is wonderfully confusing and atmospheric, contrasting the 80s and the 90s, two decades that couldn't have been much more different in Berlin. And I read Kathrin Röggla's "factions" with interest too, a blurry portrait of nightlife adventures.

Sometimes it's the tiny details that capture the place. Here's Röggla: "on the way home there's the lime blossom again, leaving a film on the street, on the car roofs, windscreens, covering the city with their pattern, a script that's hard to decipher, a secret language!" Or Uwe Johnson, in an older piece: "The S-Bahn, its cast iron posts, its greenhouse stairs, its out-of-date enamel, keeps the city's past in our memory."

The final picture of the city is one of contradictions, an ugly place where beauty is possible, a place with a past but which is still loveable. It's hard for me to judge how the book will come across to readers who don't know the city. But as I read it I was constantly exclaiming, bending down page corners as I found familiar feelings, and laughing out loud for sheer joy. The loudest was over the place where Monika Maron discovered her love for the city, somewhere I pass every day:
"I looked at Chausseestraße's filthy asphalt skin, and thought I wanted to embrace it, wanted to lie down flat on the street with my arms out wide and embrace the street, the city."

What a joy.

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