‘Berlin separated me from my body. I searched for it as for a torn-off calendar page while scenes, streets, faces slowly migrated into me. Time doesn’t exist outside these streets, scenes and faces. Only in their lavish self-obliteration in space do hours acquire some meaning.’
Yesterday I spent a year in Berlin. I didn’t mean for the year to pass so swiftly, I intended, as has been suggested, to linger a little, take time to reflect, to let the sense of place sink in. But I could not refrain from inhaling the city in one fevered sitting. I walked, for a few hours, in the company of Aleš Šteger, a modern day flâneur, shadowing Walter Benjamin, through the German capital, experiencing it with an outsider’s eye and a poet’s soul – at once filtered and enhanced – emerging at the end, altered as only one can be, from the chance not just to visit but to inhabit a foreign space for a period of time.
Berlin is a collection of short stories, very short in fact, that emerged from a year that the Slovenian writer spent in the city. Illustrated with Šteger’s own black and white photographs, these stories, two to three page single-paragraph pieces, tread the blurred line between fiction and essay, prose and poetry, and contain some of the most arresting urban imagery I have ever encountered in such a tight and concise format. With themes that run from the extravagant, to the insightful, to the mundane; this collection holds fast to the spirit of the epigraph from the German poet Durs Grünbein that opens the book:
‘Essentially every city is merely an extension of your own room, you are never entirely homeless/ . . . /The ideal city, which I see in all cities, is nothing but the brain turned inside out.’
Thus it is a book explicitly about Berlin, but implicitly about every city. Native son Walter Benjamin is a clear and present inspiration, and Bertolt Brecht figures, but a range of literary ghosts from antiquity through to the present day, visit the city through Šteger’s imagination. Their voices slide through German, into Slovenian, and back, in the book at hand, into English. The play of language is critical, it marks the experience of the outsider who not only shifts meanings but translates currencies, cultures and habits as he or she dwells in a strange place. In “Crack Berlin”, a story whose title refers to the map-like system of cracks running across the ceiling of an apartment bedroom, the narrator rests in the poetic arms of Ingeborg Bachmann to sketch out his space in this, his temporary home:
‘Translating words, I carry them from German into Slovenian, break them, spin them, just like I spin the map of Berlin, it turns me, searches me, moves me from place to place. The words of someone who died the year when I was born. Words of despair in some city, which has the same name as the city in which I am now alone. Words of despair and loss, which could also be mine, which could be from everyone.’
Berlin is as much a book about a city as it is a book about the language of being. Placing oneself in a foreign place, be it for a week or a year, and finding in the resulting otherness an ability to be present to the moment away from the routine demands of family, responsibility and commitments that pile up around us in those places we come to think of as home, can be an opportunity to open up to the small details, the sounds, the angle of light, and, yes, the people we might otherwise overlook.
Šteger, whose poetry collection The Book of Things, won the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) for poetry in 2011, is a sensitive observer of objects and emotions, and of the relation between the two. Items that he (or his narrators, though the two seem indistinguishable) covet beckon with the allure of a lover – he looks, he resists, he panics and purchases the moment it appears that his beloved might have another serious suitor. The anxiety that wells up when it appears that he has tarried too long is captured deliciously in “Flea Markets”: ‘I looked at the spot where the object of my desire had stood before and didn’t see it. I dawdled and glanced around me like an abandoned bride, melted butter, a cracked bell. And finally I spied a pair of its elegant legs jutting from beneath a pile of old records.’ His pride is beyond him when he rides the subway home seated on his precious purchase, an antique chair/chamber pot.
For those seeking stories with more conventional style and narrative arc, this collection may bemuse, even disappoint. However, the compulsive appeal of the pieces in Berlin, for this reader at least, is largely a function of form. The single paragraph first person narratives unfold with the rhythm and restless energy of incantations, whether Šteger’s alter ego is observing animals in the zoo, describing an infestation of ladybugs in his apartment, or speculating about the potential, in a city of museums, for the creation of a museum of museum guards. His Berlin is a city marked by the wounds of war, bearing the scars and the monuments of its divided history. As a visitor from a land more recently ravaged by war, Šteger is acutely sensitive to this element, but he resists dwelling there. His Berlin is more importantly a city of infinite detail, a play of light and shadows, an intersection of bakeries and kebab sellers, a point bound by countless threads to the rest of Europe and beyond – a central hub, a beating heart.
This is a slim volume. It can easily be read in one sitting. I found it impossible to tear myself away and reread several pieces along the way, simply to immerse myself in the flow of words, to marvel at the imagery. I read much of it aloud. It would, on the other hand, be suitable for a slower, contemplative read. Steger’s grainy black and white photographs capture the ordinary, the every day – the buildings, streets and, of course, things – that complement the view of the city that he, through his twenty-first century flâneur, experiences and brings to life. It is also worth noting that the thrity-one stories that comprise this book are translated by three translators, Brian Henry, and the team of Aljaž Kovać and Forrest Gander. Although an index at the end lists the stories and the translators, it is not evident in the reading a shift from one translator (or pair) to another.
This book is, deservedly, one of the longlisted nominees for the 2016 BTBA for fiction, standing, if nothing else, as an indication of the rich diversity of that list. This is a special and unique collection.
I would be remiss though, to end this review without offering a taste of “About Temples”, one the most unabashedly romantic entries in Berlin. It would be a cold booklovers heart that could not at least smile at this evocation of that most sacred of spaces granted the full force of Šteger’s playful fondness for religious metaphor:
‘After the tinkling of the front door, the entrant is delivered to the grace and disgrace of fallen literary demons smuggled back into heaven. He climbs humbly like some pilgrim, only two steps and he is already in the highest spheres. The air is pregnant with the smell of myrtle, bookbinding glue and dust, and before he realizes it, a shadow of an angel’s wing of one of the classics printed in small letters has stroked him. Whoever enters must leave his reading, his literary snobbery, yes, even the power of credit, outside. Two spaces, two houses of prayer, from hell to heaven, nothing but books, books, books.’