Discovering Cees Nooteboom’s Berlin

I’ve written a piece for the MacLehose Press blog about my stay in Berlin and following in Cees Nooteboom’s footsteps:

“Conquering a city. Just like a real war, it begins with topographic maps, reconnaissance. Friends provide covert intelligence. The house serves as the base of operations, and always offers the option of strategic retreat. The lines of communication: trams, underground train, bus, foot. Provisions: where is the market? Gradually, the surrounding city begins to take shape, flickers of recognition, the shortest route, points de repère, library, department store, museum, park, Wall. Negotiation, capitulation – the house starts to behave like a house, we begin to act like residents. The building’s main hallway is dark; there’s a lion’s head on the stair rail. I stroke it every day and the lion starts to say hello when it sees me, the other residents of the building still do not. The postman has come to take a sniff at us. He is tall, a grey man in a uniform with a cap, and the dialect he speaks is almost incomprehensible. The letterbox has been cut into the door of the apartment, a hand’s breadth and only two centimetres high; almost nothing will come through it, a faulty connection to the country I come from. I read the Frankfurter Allgemeine now, a serious business. This country does not take a light-hearted approach to itself. None of the irreverence that I’m used to at home. A stern front page, usually without a picture; I probably even look different when I’m reading it.”
(Cees Nooteboom, Berlijn, page 25)

Cees Nooteboom wrote these words in 1989, when he moved from Amsterdam to live and work in Berlin at the invitation of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Now, twenty-two years later, I have followed the author’s path from the area bounded by Singel and Herengracht in Amsterdam, and come to Berlin to work on a translation of his book Berlin. I’ve been out on reconnaissance in the area around my temporary home and established the lay of the land. I’m even developing something of a routine, which involves lots of reading, writing and revising, interspersed with forays and scouting expeditions into the surrounding city to check out sites mentioned in the book.

Part One of Berlin deals with Nooteboom’s experiences throughout his first stay in the city, from early 1989 to June 1990, a time, of course, of immense change and upheaval, which saw the fall of the Wall and the reshaping of Europe. Parts Two and Three of the book feature his impressions of Berlin and how he perceives the city and the country to have changed and developed during his subsequent visits and stays in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany, taking us through the 1990s and almost up to the present day.

I’ve lived in Germany for four years in total, but had visited Berlin only twice, in the early 1990s, and I realised that if I was going to be working on this book, I needed a refresher course on the city. So I packed up my laptop and am now spending a few weeks in Berlin’s Tiergarten district, visiting places and refreshing my own memories. And yes, it feels like a different city. In the eighteen years since my last visit, the city has undergone a transformation: buildings have disappeared and new ones have taken their place. Brandenburger Tor has acquired neighbouring buildings that seem intent on muscling in on the tourist action. Potsdamer Platz is no longer a dusty wasteland, but is lined with shiny temples to commerce, and tall blocks that boast the label of ‘APARTMENTS’, lettered in gold.

As often happens, since I started thinking about Berlin, I’ve heard from lots of friends and acquaintances on Facebook, on Twitter and indeed in real life who love Berlin, have just been to Berlin, are planning to visit Berlin soon or have a friend who’s here now. A contact put me in touch with a local literary translation group and I met up with the members at a restaurant in Kreuzberg. A friend of a friend is putting on a theremin performance in Kreuzberg – I missed her when she last visited Amsterdam, but I’ll be able to catch her in Berlin. Edward van de Vendel, a great Dutch children’s writer, is currently visiting Berlin to participate in the city’s literature festival, as is Kader Abdolah, the well-known Dutch-Iranian author. I’m even considering finally going to see the Amsterdam Klezmer Band, who are in Berlin for the Jewish Cultural Festival. In Amsterdam, I suddenly saw Berlin everywhere. Now I’ve swapped Amsterdam for Berlin, a little bit of home appears to have followed me here.

Another pleasant Amsterdam–Berlin connection was meeting up with some Germany-based members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Barbara Lalicki, from Harper Collins in New York, was coming to talk to the Amsterdam chapter of the society and I was disappointed that I’d be missing her visit, but then I found out that her only other stop in Europe would be with the society’s chapter in Berlin. So I was pleased to have the opportunity to hear Barbara talk and to meet some fellow members of the society. Having checked out the location, I also realised that the bookshop where we would be meeting was just around the corner from Wolff’s Bücherei on Bundesallee, which Nooteboom visits for a reading in his Berlin:

“Monday evening. Hilde Domin is reading at Wolff’s Bücherei. Poems, sketches from her life. A long life, she is almost eighty, with the ruthless indomitability of people who have lived through all kinds of things. Small, fragile, without her spectacles, a voice like glass. Fled Germany in 1933, gained a doctorate in Florence on a predecessor of Machiavelli, a rosary of exile, Italy, driven away again, England, Santo Domingo, a life of poems, poverty, different houses all the time, nothing could break her. In the book she signs for me, Aber die Hoffnung, she underlines the word ‘Aber’ three times.” p. 102

I stopped off at Wolff’s on the way to my meeting and found a fine old German bookshop with beautiful displays and a friendly shopkeeper. It’s no longer called Wolff’s Bücherei, but otherwise it was just as I’d imagined. Wolff’s Bücherei is now Der Zauberberg, just one more very small change in a city that has seen so many.

Nooteboom ends Part One of his book on 30 June, 1990, with the following words: “when I return, everything will be different, yet still the same, and changed forever.” He refers back to this thought when he embarks upon Part Two of Berlin , which deals with his first return to the city:

“It was in itself not a difficult prediction to make. The Wall would be gone, but the familiar buildings would still remain, the two parts of the city would, I thought, slowly move towards each other, along with the people who lived there, newspapers would disappear and new ones would take their place, West Berlin would become busier and busier, and in the East the signs of capitalism would start making inroads.” p. 273

Specifically, Nooteboom refers to the Belvedere in the gardens of Sanssouci in Potsdam, the former summer palace of Frederick the Great. In the final photograph in Part One of Berlin, taken in 1990, the Belvedere is a dilapidated ruin, its masonry and pillars crumbling, filthy and overgrown. When Nooteboom revisited the site upon his return to Berlin in Part Two of his book, he found that the building had changed:

“I recently visited the Belvedere again. It was no longer the open, wounded ruin it had been since the war, dismantled, violated, weeds among the pillars. Its decay was wrapped up like one of Christo’s buildings, the desecration now invisible. The signs of war will disappear from it, it will no longer serve as a memento; on the contrary, if it ever resurfaces from beneath those black rags, it will gleam, a model of classical architectural style, a showpiece. Yet it will also be a little dead, like an actress with a facelift.” p. 267

And indeed, I called in on the venerable lady only yesterday, in September 2011, and found her looking still glamorous, but a little tired. The structure is beautiful, but, twenty years after her treatment, she appears to be in need of a little top-up.

Some things, however, don’t change so much. A couple of days ago, I happened upon another literary haunt that receives a mention in Part One of Berlin: the Buchhändlerkeller on Cramerstraße, where the author went to see Kerstin Hensel (‘small, severe, extremely minimalist clothing, hair like Brecht’s, the shorn head of a nun, born in 1961’) read from Hallimasch, her book of short stories. The Buchhändlerkeller is still there; the programme still offers readings.

When I found the Buchhändlerkeller, I was on my way to Goethestraße, where the author lived during his extended stay in Berlin. The Goethe-Apotheke he describes is still there too – as Nooteboom mentions, it’s been there since 1900. But Nana Nanu, ‘with its artificial flowers and ice-blue nylon animals in the window display’ has gone, as has Zum Wirtenbub, a ‘gloomy bar’ that the author never visited, but where he always heard people playing dice when he went by. Fortunately, however, for me as a translator, the facade of the building where he lived appears to have remained the same and I can confirm that is indeed the colour of ‘solidified mud, or desert soil, at any rate something involving earth, and dry, jagged – it would hurt your hand if you were to rub it.’

So, I’m going to stay in Berlin for a few more weeks, translating, thinking and ready to spot more connections between Amsterdam and Berlin and the past and the present. So much has changed, yet so much has remained the same.

Berlin by Cees Nooteboom, translated by Laura Watkinson, will be published in 2013. He talks about it in this interview:

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