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4:31pm on Wednesday, 21st October, 2009:

Berlin Blues


Had I gone to Berlin in the summer like I was supposed to, before my brother inconsiderately copped his clogs, I would have visited the home of one of the organisers of the FaVE conference in the Kreuzberg district for a barbecue. I didn't, but (as I mentioned in QBlog) a couple of weeks ago they were all in the UK so we met up. One of them, Sabine Cikic, gave me a copy of a book she was planning on giving me in Berlin, which is set in Kreuzberg. The book's title in English is Berlin Blues (in German, it's Herr Lehmann).

This morning, I finished reading it.

Now I learned on the radio recently that only around 3% of the English-language books bought in the UK are translated from other languages, so I knew that this would be No Ordinary Book (otherwise it wouldn't have been translated). It's set in Berlin in 1989, so I immediately assumed it was in part allegorical. It's pretty good without any kind of allegorical reading (although the translation is a little ropey to start with — either that or it's a faithful rendition of roped German), with a great deadpan sense of humour. It's basically about a barman called Frank Lehmann (or Herr Lehmann, as everyone calls him) and his life in Kreuzberg as he approaches his 30th birthday. He has a best friend, also a barman, who is big and very likeable with ambitions to be an artists; he (Herr Lehmann) falls in love with Katrin, a beautiful cook, and ... well, that's about it really, without spoiling the plot (inasmuch as it has a plot).

Now expecting it to be an allegory, I was attuned to the symbols. I figured early on that Herr Lehmann himself was a cipher for a united Germany, because the first chapter is all about his encounter with a vicious dog. Knowing that no book set in 1989 Berlin could not fail to include the wall's coming down, I guessed that later on we'd see the dog transformed into a friendly animal (which, as it happens, we do). I soon realised that Herr Lehmann wasn't a stand-in for a united Germany, though, because we were rapidly introduced to his best friend, Karl, who was much bigger and always on top of things. What's more, his surname was Schmidt, which is as close an everyman name as you can get in Germany. Herr Lehmann seemed more to represent the district of Kreuzberg, which today is a hotbed of free thinkers and immigrants who are passing through (I checked what Lehmann means in English, and it's analogous to our surname Tenant — someone who lives in someone else's property). However, he could also be West Germany, because although he was argumentative and had quirky opinions, he wasn't exactly a radical any way. I decided that if Herr Lehmann were indeed West Germany, then Karl would need to have some kind of relationship with a person representing East Germany, whom he kept separate from Herr Lehmann. I was hoping it would be the dog from the first chapter, but turned out to be a girlfriend instead.

I took Herr Lehmann's girlfriend, Katrin, to be West Berlin. This did not bode well for the relationship, because sooner or later she would have to hook up with East Berlin. East Berlin turned out to be a character called Rainer, who started off as someone who was always around but with whom there was little interaction. Herr Lehmann himself started to talk to him and brought him into his circle.

The collapse of the wall came at the expense of Karl's emotional condition. He had an art show, but lost confidence in himself; he'd always wanted it, but when it happened he wasn't sure how he would deal with it. The book seemed to be saying that Germany had always wanted to be reunited, but when it happened it wasn't immediately clear how it would be dealt with; it would take time to make a full recovery.

OK, so armed with this symbolism (and a few other things I won't bore you with further), when I finished the book today I logged on to see if I'd got it right. I looked it up, discovered that there had been an award-winning movie based on it, but the symbolism? Well, there didn't seem to be any. No-one who had written any reviews of the book in English had made any reference to how characters mapped onto anything. They seemed to be looking at it as an examination of the psyche of a many who thinks he knows the world, and is comfortable with his place in it, but when he's faced with a crisis finds that actually he knows very little at all about his friends, his work colleagues, his girlfriend, his country. He needs to open his eyes.

In other words, I read a book from cover to cover which I in part enjoyed because I could guess what was coming from the interpretations I had placed on the characters, but there were no such interpretations to make. It was entirely a coincidence.

Bah, literature — if no-one ever wrote stories with subtexts, I wouldn't embarrass myself trying to figure them out...

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Copyright © 2009 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).