If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of Berlin as you feel/see it?
Berlin is an inside-out city. In most cities, the bankers, lawyers, and doctors are the insiders, while tramps, addicts, artists, and radicals are on the outside, marginalized. In Berlin, it’s the other way around. There is a political integrity to the city that newcomers may find baffling or childish, like a cocoon protecting her from the infectious psychopathy of very late capitalism. I believe it’s because Berlin has witnessed the absolute worst humanity has to offer, been broken so many times that the will to dissimulate, to walk the lesser path, has been beaten out of her. And this is where her beauty lies: in that tiredness, that brokenness, that honesty that comes with watching the sun rise after a night of such impossible violence that it feels like a miracle simply to see another day.
In most cities, people try to look presentable and confident; they conceal their torments and depressions and traumas and wounds. Berlin wears them openly, without pride or shame. Very few houses have curtains. Suicide is a socially acceptable topic of conversation. New arrivals to the city are fast revealed as family misfits in search of a tribe. But often they don’t find people like them, they find people who won’t judge them; they find others who didn’t belong. There is a permanent solace in the knowledge that you can’t be the weirdest person in this city where perversion is normal, and normal just another perversion.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
On December 19, 2016, someone drove a truck into a Christmas market next to the church at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin and killed twelve people, a terrorist attack. I was less than a mile away and could hear the church bells and wondered why they were ringing so late. When I found out, I lay there all night, wondering why anyone would do this. The next morning someone posted on Facebook: “Danke, Angela Merkel,” blaming her for allowing refugees into Germany. Hatred compounds hatred. It comes from nowhere and can last a very long time.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most people?
There are little bronze plaques on the pavements called Stolpersteine, seventy thousand of them, detailing who lived in the adjacent house, when they were born, and in which concentration camp they died. It’s very dangerous to come here as a tourist and “do the museums”: it can plunge you into some very dark places you’re quite unprepared for. There are former concentration camps outside the city; spaces without joy; spaces that extinguish your soul. Pain is everywhere in Berlin, past and present.
On another note, people read in Berlin. Last night I was walking home at midnight and saw a man kneeling in a doorway with a flashlight, looking at a tower of books someone had left there for passersby to take away; people leave books on window ledges in apartment buildings or in boxes on the street. People sit alone at bars and read by candlelight at one in the morning (a lot of people wear glasses as a result). I once saw someone reading a Bolaño novel while lighting a pipe that probably contained meth or crack.
Which writers from Berlin should we read?
Dilek Güngör. Deniz Utlu.
Is there a place here you return to often?
In the winter, I stay at home and work. In the summer, I go to my local park every day and try not to work at all. The park is its own society. Go there often enough, and you see everything. A group of alcoholics seems to run the place, collecting bottles, drinking quietly to one side, socializing, greeting people, occasionally running amok. Teenagers descend in the evenings, fighting over bottles of beer like monkeys over jackfruit, attempting to mate in highly unskillful ways. Some parks have nude areas; but even without this, in summer you’re overdressed if you’re wearing sunglasses and shorts. I go there so often that it almost feels like going to a job. I see the same people in the same spot, greet them with a nod of the head before spreading out my blanket, which I carry with me everywhere. The concept of being a “slacker” doesn’t exist in Berlin; it doesn’t make sense.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
When you walk over the bridge on Friedrichstrasse you can see the spire of the Berliner Ensemble, with its name at the top that can be seen from far away. This was Bertoldt Brecht’s theater, among others, with the motto, “Theater as a moral institution.” I like this: I find amorality boring. Brecht is buried nearby, in Dorotheenstadt Cemetery, alongside Hegel, Fichte, Heinrich Mann, and Herbert Marcuse.
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
Tempelhofer Feld used to be a parade ground for military garrisons and then became an airport. During World War II, the Nazis used it to assemble their fighters, and it later became the site of the Berlin airlift, famous, too, for Operation Little Vittles, where pilots dropped sweets for the children living nearby. The airport closed in 2008, and today it’s the biggest park in Berlin, though it feels like an entire city. Everything happens there. It’s vast and flat, with very few trees, so you can see for miles, something I’ve never experienced in an urban space.
The old runways are still there; people use them to cycle, rollerblade, jog, skateboard, and Segway. There’s an abandoned plane in one corner of the field. One area is reserved for plots of land where people garden, grow vegetables, and build igloos in the winter. I’ve seen every sport played there: football; a kind of windsurfing with a skateboard where people rise as high as buildings; this mock medieval joust with lances and balls and chains; speedminton; basketball; there’s even a baseball diamond. There are plays at night, too, wherein the audience walks from one part of the field to another; and there are concerts in the giant hangar, and fashion shows. One section is devoted to barbecues; Turkish families bring their kitchen tables and tablecloths and eat elaborate, enviable meals.
In 2011, the government announced plans to build commercial buildings and offices there, but the residents forced a referendum, and 64 percent voted no. “The wonder is that Berlin still carries on,” wrote the deputy editor of Die Welt, a conservative newspaper. “In the Prussian capital, hippie culture is state policy.” What he calls hippie culture is, in my opinion, a culture of healing: it’s the diversion of psychopathic energy, be it the capitalist obsession with growth or the fascist obsession with power, into something fun and harmless, something from which joy can eventually emerge, and love too. That is Berlin, for me: where broken things heal.
Where does passion live here?
Passion is everywhere in Berlin. It can be intellectual, sexual, artistic, political, angry, violent, tormented, demented; but it’s rarely romantic. Berlin is not a romantic city. My wife gave me a copy of Brecht’s love poems for Valentine’s Day once, and they are the darkest, most unromantic poems I’ve read, but they’re full of passion and feel very Berlin.
Against your body, many a night; that dream.
Ghostly highways under evening-pale
Very cold skies. Pale winds. Crows
Screaming for food and in the night comes rain.
With clouds in the wind, years following on years
Your face washes away, my Bittersweet, again
And in the cold wind with a shock of fear I feel
Your body lightly, half in my sleep, in the beginning light
Still with a trace of bitterness in my brain.
What is the title of one of your works about Berlin and what inspired it exactly?
Berlin is a good place to write in, but I’ve never felt the urge to write about it. All I have is a line in my new novel, Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss, in which the professor is meeting his daughter, from whom he’s been estranged for a long time, and asks her where she has been. The two were at loggerheads over ideology: she is a radical; he is a conservative; and when she disappeared, it was, in part, to escape the authoritarianism of her father, to find somewhere she could exist without being judged. He imagined she was living in a hole somewhere with other similarly minded lost souls. She tells him she was in Berlin.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Berlin does an outside exist?”
I’m not very interested in Brandenburg. I like hills, and it’s very flat. There are some nice forests that are very dark and mysterious, especially in the winter, but I’m not especially interested. Stepping outside Berlin feels absolute. If Berlin is Oz, Brandenburg is Kansas. It hardly helps that there are high concentrations of neo-Nazis to the north and east. I once found myself derailed in a place called Riesa and surrounded by them; I hid in a concrete bus shelter. I do not intend to return to Riesa.
My advice is to leave every winter and go as far away as possible: Asia, the Americas, Africa. As a writer, I need to visit the outside world with its wars and fascist politicians and its Google and Facebook and its giant shopping malls and mass homelessness and riots and investment bankers and advertisers and homicidal policemen and suicide bombers. But I don’t want to live in this world. I want to come back here and write about it. The most understated but perfect description of Berlin I’ve heard is this: “It’s just not as fucked up as everywhere else.” Of course, I want to see the wild lands, but as Marlene Dietrich sang: “I still keep a suitcase in Berlin.”
Rajeev Balasubramanyam was born in Lancashire in 1974 and went on to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford and Development Studies at Cambridge. He received a PhD in English and Creative Writing from Lancaster University. He is the prize-winning author of In Beautiful Disguises (Bloomsbury, 2000), and his latest novel is Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss (Chatto & Windus, 2019; Random House USA, 2019). His journalism and short fiction have appeared in the Washington Post, the Economist, New Statesman, London Review of Books, the Paris Review, McSweeney’s, and others. He lives and works in Berlin.