Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Berlin bei Nacht. Neue Geschichten - ed. Susanne Gretter

Berlin has a certain reputation as a city of vibrant nightlife. So when a friend recommended this anthology of Berlin stories, I was expecting tales of lost weekends in techno palaces, riding trains with Iggy Pop, and perhaps an imaginative dash of Josephine Baker. Actually, all three of those legends are present here, but in unexpected forms. And there's much more besides: foxes, hospitals, kitchens, taxi drivers, liars, and yes, bars, bars and more bars. Drinking with German writers - the fiction edition. In fact, the authors even include two of my previous drinking partners, Inka Parei and David Wagner.

Some of the stories seem to be straight-forward reports of a particular night: Klaus Bittermann darts amusingly from kindergarten to "discourse pop" to disappointing rock 'n' roll; Marc Fischer describes a group of Spanish tourists queuing up outside the inevitable Berghain in a text I'd read before. But ho hum, it worked just as well the second time. Critic Dirk Knipphals has a charming journalistic piece about patchwork nights then and now, and Bernd Cailloux has a wonderful, wonderful portrait of one night in the life of a taxi driver.

What stood out most for me, however, were the texts that were easier to classify as fiction. Anna Katharina Hahn opens the anthology with an astounding story about a man who pretends to come from Berlin and gets a spectacular comeuppance. Marica Bodrozic has a dreamlike night with William Blake behind a green door. Sarah Khan made me laugh with a story about clashing stereotypes and voodoo. Inka Parei does what she's so incredibly good at, writing a precise story that all ties together about ten minutes after you finish reading it. Kathrin Schmidt sends a missive from the very edge of town, where the lives might seem less gaudy but make for excellent fiction. Annett Gröschner's heroine trawls a Prenzlauer Berg bar for the gentrifying men she abhors, sharing a mini-history of the borough's past forty years as she goes along but never falling into the trap of spitting vitriol on the newcomers in general.

And then there's Christian Ruzicska's beautiful, confusing, breathless story, told at third hand and filtered through alcohol, of a Jewish woman who returns to Berlin. I'm not at all sure what happens here but I do know I love it.

Another thing I appreciated about the anthology was that it includes a wide range of voices, not just people who write fiction for a living. So we get a few slightly rough-and-ready texts, some of which were great fun, like Kerstin and Sandra Grether's account of an evening as DJs (although it does include a particular bugbear of mine: the German neologism DJane. There's no need, to my mind, to create a feminine version of Disk Jockey because a jockey can be male or female, as Elizabeth Taylor gamely proved in National Velvet. So we can abandon the unwieldy formulations "DJs und DJanes" or, as here, the pronounceable "DJ_anes" AND mentally celebrate a diva at the same time.)

The collection closes with a piece by indie publisher and unlikely-but-true man-about-town Jörg Sundermeier, which I suppose sums up what's good about these pieces. He begins with one of those familiar reminiscences of post-89 nightlife in Mitte - wasn't it great, and weren't we young and wild, and wasn't it all so alternative. And then the text slips, and we're not quite sure where we are, and at the very moment when the veteran's lament of "it's all different nowadays" might be due, Sundermeier takes a different tack.
And it's snowing and snowing, and snow falls, snow, upon the living and the dead.

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