Dutch author Cees Nootemboom has been travelling to and occasionally living in Berlin since 1963. He was there in 1989 for the fall of the Wall and the events leading up to it, and he travelled back to Germany on many occasions since reunification.
Roads to Berlin (Maclehose Press, 2012) is subtitled Detours and riddles in the lands and history of Germany and translated by Laura Watkinson. It brings together several collections, written at various times from 1989 to 2012. For me, the first section was the strongest. Originally published in Dutch in 1990, it deals with the stirring and momentous events of the period with what the publisher’s blurb calls “an outsider’s objectivity”. This combination of subject matter that’s right up my street and a translator I know online, and have met a few times, meant that I’d been wanting to read the book for a long time. Having plunged in right after Christmas, I got sidetracked for a while, but a few train journeys and an evening with mari catching up on some American football match or other later, I’ve got been able to finish it.
At primary school, we learnt to fill in maps of Europe with all the names of the countries and their capitals. Yugoslavia (Belgrade), Czechoslovakia (Prague), West Germany (Bonn), East Germany (Berlin)… I have a vivid memory of the shock of discovering that East Germany was one of the communist ones not long before the whole thing collapsed, while the Wall coming down is one of my earliest political memories. Similarly, the politics of the era is something I have studied at A-level and undergraduate level. Combine all of this with the benefit of hindsight, and German unification seems utterly inevitable and natural. Although I should have known it all along, it was reading this slightly detached, contemporary account that really opened my eyes to the fact that maybe things could have gone another way, to the what-ifs, the imponderables of history.
Nooteboom records the voices of ordinary people from either side of the border, both before and after the Wende: their fears and prejudices when reunification is apparently impossible yet only months away, the initial euphoria, its aftershocks and hangovers, and the fears, prejudices etc resurfacing. Those Ossies just moan, moan, moan. Those Wessies are so arrogant, think they own the place…
There is also an intriguing questioning of the idea of instant history – the author visits a museum in which the placards he saw waved at demonstrations only weeks earlier are now displayed on the wall. Can they truly have become “historic” artefacts – a word cheapened by overuse from politicians and journalists -in such a short space of time? Meanwhile, what is to be done with the Russian museum celebrating their glorious victory over the fascists?
Sadly, the rest of the book didn’t catch my interest in the same way. I found the travel notes and admittedly very beautiful descriptions of countryside and monuments overlong, and the later sections disjointed. For me they lacked the immediacy that made the first part so appealing.
I very much enjoyed Laura’s translation throughout though and thought she did a great job of capturing the various moods of the text, as well as the tricky business of interspersed snatches of German, jargon and abbreviations. And whatever my doubts about the second half of the book, it is very well worth reading for the first half alone.