The figure of the stranger who comes to a new place is a bit of a cliché in literature (and film, and TV for that matter). But it’s a useful device, allowing an author to describe somewhere as if seeing it for the first time, to explain and comment on the history of a place, and to highlight cultural differences and those little local quirks which long-term inhabitants slowly but surely come to think are the normal way of doing things.
Recently I’ve been reading novels by authors who themselves are (or were) newcomers to Berlin, just like their characters: Chloe Aridjis’s Book of Clouds * (whose main character Tatiana is Mexican), Anna Winger’s This Must Be the Place, and I’m just about to start Ida Hattemer-Higgins’ The History of History. They are all debut novels, as it happens – coming to Berlin obviously inspires writers!
This must be the place brings together Hope, an American in Berlin, and voiceover artist Walter, who dubs Tom Cruise into German. Hope is traumatised after living through September 11 in New York shortly after losing her child, and only reluctantly agrees to follow her husband Dave to Berlin. Walter once worked at Disneyland – playing Prince Charming with “a little European authenticity” – and he dreams of returning to the US to kick-start his career again, with a little help from his friend Tom. They make an odd couple: Walter is increasingly infatuated with Hope, while she is oblivious to his intentions but keen to escape her isolation and increasingly reliant on her German guide to the strange city.
As the text goes on, the symmetries between their lives are revealed: Walter’s mother was American; unbeknown to him, her parents pretended she was dead after she married a German, while Dave’s Jewish parents were unhappy that he married non-Jewish Hope; Walter’s maternal grandparents, who he seeks out while working in California, turn out to be Jewish.
The characters live in the same early 20th century block of flats in the Western district of Charlottenburg, and it’s the buildings in the city which hold its memories – of war, dispossession, personal histories. Houses are both real reminders and metaphors for the past: Hope unearths a mural of fairytale characters under the layers of wallpaper in the room she wants to turn into a nursery. At the end of the novel Walter takes her down to the cellar where they remember the dead in a room decorated with Hebrew characters from a clandestine school.
Hope’s naivety seems a little implausible: she thinks that because you don’t have to go through barriers to get into the underground system in Berlin, it must be free – really? And she brings up the German past (or rather, the Nazi period and particularly the fate of the Jews) at every available opportunity. Her continual insistence on Berlin’s ghosts jars a little in an otherwise sympathetic portrait.
What really interests me is how the novel itself conveys a sense of Berlin’s history, geography and even the German language to an audience who may not know the city. This is the kind of issue that faces translators, and even though this is an original English-language text, the solutions (and the problems) are much the same. Much of the information is staged through conversations between Walter and Hope (not something you can add to a translation!) but elsewhere place names and histories, German words and Berlin-specific details are glossed, like “a local magazine called Zitty”, or “the saying went in German, to excuse yourself is to accuse yourself”. Dialogue is recorded in German with no explanation to demonstrate Hope’s confusion, while Walter translates himself in their conversations in English, as well as Tom Cruise in his dubbing. It’s a nice linguistic touch – bringing a sense of the German language from inside to contrast with Hope’s outsider’s view of Berlin.
Anna Winger, This Must Be the Place (Riverhead Books, 2008)
* more on Book of Clouds another time.