Monday 26 October 2009

City-Lit Berlin: Michael Wildenhain - Russisch Brot

Having been rather distracted by all these prizes, book fairs and the like, I'm now going to make a mad dash to cover a few more of the titles that made it into the City-Lit Berlin anthology. Starting with another fiction favourite, Michael Wildenhain's Russisch Brot. The title, incidentally, is a kind of rather dull biscuit in the shape of letters of the alphabet, combining childhood nostalgia with political reference.

I chose the book because I find Wildenhain writes very well on everyday life in Cold-War West Berlin. I particularly enjoyed his Träumer des Absoluten (review here) on the squatters' movement and what came out of it. Russisch Brot is a very different book but just as well done - one reviewer even compared Wildenhain to Alfred Döblin, that master of observation whose Berlin Alexanderplatz has branded itself onto collective literary memory. It's the story of a family divided by the Berlin Wall, a very common fate. The narrator Joachim is a young boy, an only child growing up in the West. But his most exciting experiences take place in a run-down Kleingartenkolonie in the East, where he visits the rest of his family at their weekend garden home. This is where Wildenhain excels, describing the heat, the scent and the emotions his narrator feels up in the dusty loft with his female cousin.

We learn forgotten facts about the divided Berlin - how pensioners were allowed out of the East, how people in the West had to queue for a day pass - the cruel passage we used in City-Lit Berlin. And we learn how families nevertheless managed to stay together. There is a secret lurking in this family's past, one that plays on Joachim's mind until the final page and propels the novel along at a sturdy pace. A photo of a strange boy, a strange man his mother seems to know. In the background glowers the war, casting its long shadow over the family's history just as it does over the city itself.

But what I loved was the sensual details from the child's point of view:

...Every visit was more than just an outing, it was a little adventure. Only the presents my relatives from East Berlin gave me for my birthday or Christmas were a disappointment. I threw away the sweets that tasted of colouring or too much sugar and made lumps on the roof of my mouth when I chewed them. I felt sorry for the toy Indians I often unwrapped. The Indians in the East were made of carefully painted clay. Their arms or legs often broke off, a calf or a hand dangling down and slightly moveable on a wire that emerged beneath the coloured clay tubes.

A beautifully written portrait of Berlin in the 1960s, told from an unusual perspective.

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