I was provoked into attending the Berlin launch of Berlin Cantata by the way the novel was billed as a polyphonic work centering on a house just outside Berlin, and some of the people whose hands it passed through during the twentieth century. My, my, I thought, that sounds terribly familiar, doesn’t it? Has someone rewritten Jenny Erpenbeck’s excellent Visitation?
No, as it turns out. Jeffrey Lewis’s novel in fact centres around Holly Anholt, who comes to Berlin in 1991 to claim back her Jewish parents’ former property. Only she runs into a whole host of characters who make things more complicated for her and the reader. The thirteen voices make for a slippery experience, and the fact that it’s written by an American makes it very different to Erpenbeck’s work.
After nibbles and drinks (served by a friendly rabbi, bizarrely) at the launch, Lewis told us he’d come to Berlin himself in 1991 to research the novel and only written it much later. One scene – a party for the Day of Atonement – is based on his own experience of Jewish life returning to East Berlin in those days, when Russian Jews had begun moving to the city and the tiny East Berlin community was being bolstered by others who had rediscovered their Jewish identity for various reasons.
Berlin Cantata is strong where it deals with Americans. Holly and her mother (who dies before the action proper begins) have great voices, with Holly’s conflicting feelings about her parents’ former house and her new German boyfriend convincingly related. They’re both three-dimensional characters with interesting stories to tell.
However, from the moment Lewis tries to slip into German roles, the novel becomes less and less convincing. Many of the characters came across as caricatures so wooden they made me laugh – the guilt-ridden leftist boyfriend who asks Holly to let her anger out on him in bed, the former East German dissident now out for revenge on those who informed on her and a new cause on which to hang her flag, the Jewish journalist turned entrepreneur who seems to have been inserted for mere comic relief, with a poorly researched farce about training up skinheads to repair Western cars. One German character I did appreciate, though, was Franz Rosen, who has built up a fake legend for himself of how he survived the Nazis while aiding the resistance and now hopes for exposure and a kind of redemption.
Rosen, in his complexity and with his avid sexuality, reminded me of a character in one of Maxim Biller’s 1994 short stories, “Lurie damals und heute”. Lurie has survived the war and the pogroms and the ghetto and the marauding Poles in Lithuania in the only way he could, by looking out for himself and only himself, and is now a successful old man in Munich. But he wants no part in the German remembrance culture, something Rosen embraces under false – or at least exaggerated – pretences.
Lewis’s greatest injustice to his German characters, however, is reserved for those he plainly dislikes. There’s nothing wrong with disliking characters, particularly if they’re Nazi apologists or vindictive old women. But by giving a number of the German characters ridiculously stilted diction that makes reading their sections even more unpleasant, he makes them look idiotic. Their supposedly “German English” upset my suspension of disbelief – the novel’s vague premise is that all the characters are writing down their own passages, so I was suddenly forced to consider why on earth they would be doing so in English, and in fact whether an East German caretaker would speak any English at all in 1991 (highly unlikely). And while there’s little need to take their ideas seriously, I wish I could have read their statements with less irritation.
So what does Lewis do well enough to keep me reading all the way to the end? He tells a meandering story, jumping to and fro in time, while resisting the temptation to tie up all the loose ends. He ventriloquises delightfully, all his voices sounding genuinely different. And he attempts to address the complicated issue of ownership of place. Once Holly moves into the country house she meets the neighbours, a rather tight-lipped bunch who struggle to deal with her arrival. Yes, her parents once owned the house and only survived the war by hiding out in a bunker in the forest. But haven’t they got to live somewhere too, they ask themselves. Don’t they have memories of their own of the place that outweigh Holly’s merely celluloid remembrance? Holly seems to be affected by their confusion, and her search for her roots becomes more complex as her understanding of the issues broadens.
While I know few practising Jews in Berlin – let’s face it, there aren’t very many of them – I have heard dozens of stories about the Jews who are gone. Many of the stories are tied to buildings. The house I live in now belongs to a West German, who actually bought the claim from the descendants of its former Jewish owners in the USA once the Wall came down. I’ll soon be moving to a house from which over 100 Jews were deported to concentration camps. There is Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind, now a museum where Jews worked and hid for as long as possible. There are the Stolpersteine, brass cobblestones commemorating Jews who were deported and killed, embedded in the pavements outside their former homes. And the launch of Berlin Cantata was held in a former Jewish girls’ school, now an expensive art space and restaurant.
So Jeffrey Lewis has picked up on a great idea to explore Jewish life returning to Berlin. As I’ve mentioned above, he does so very convincingly from the American perspective, showing us the now outsiders who were once part of the city. Sadly, I found that wasn’t enough for me as an insider in Berlin. For a better insider’s perspective on houses changing hands, read Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation (trans. Susan Bernofsky) and for a better insider’s perspective on Jewish life in 90s Germany read Maxim Biller’s Land der Väter und Verräter. And don’t forget that things have changed a great deal here over the past twenty years. The latest outsiders are party people and jobseekers from the crashed margins of Europe, and Berlin is once again struggling to come to terms with them. My favourite quote from the novel in fact goes some way towards consoling me to the Jewish journalist character: “My rough reaction to all the Jews arriving from Russia was, get out of here, this is my turf. Go home, go to Israel, go to New York, what’s wrong with you?”