OCTOBER 12, 2017
ARRIVAL TO a new city is often spectral. Drifting, as would a ghost, mute and discreet, down uncharted streets, through shops, into bookstores and museums, one is anonymous, and can remain unseen if so desired. To become visible, one must enter language, amplify the city’s discourse with itself and among its dwellers, and position the body in relation to those that have been stomping and imprinting themselves on the city streets one so curiously roams.
In her new novel Here in Berlin, Cristina García exposes an unnamed visitor to the city of Berlin. Wandering through the city, her anonymous character is no stranger to hardship and trauma. The Visitor, as she is called, ambulates from encounter to the next, collecting anecdotes, fears, losses, and happy narratives. Her motives are clear: she aims to understand Berlin and, in the process, herself. Another character called A. tells her “that after the Wall fell, he managed to reconstitute his aristocratic grandmother’s vintage Spanish library from the used books stalls near the Bode Museum.” To glean from the goods of merchants like A. did and create a history out of it is what the Visitor is so quickly drawn to. Her story is neither uncommon nor particularly remarkable. Nevertheless, it retains a modest humanity in its exploration of the everyday lives of urban dwellers. We meet Ernesto Cuadra, a Cuban teenager taken as a prisoner of war on a German submarine; Christine Meckel, a nurse who struggles with a failing eye; and Herta Zweig, owner of a Nazi role-playing sex club. And many others. García structures her text in four sections: “The Flaming Common,” “Invisible Bodies,” “War Fugues,” and “Last Rites,” each one containing a vast array of encounters that function as unofficial transcripts of the supposed conversation the Visitor had with each person. However, the transcripts are rather one-sided, presenting only the subject’s story, with no express involvement from the Visitor, who will only take up space in the book in short italicized texts at the beginning of each section.
The Visitor’s short ruminations act as epigraphs for the section to the come. This places her Visitor outside the narratives of the people she speaks to but also makes her a necessary catalyst for their stories to be told. In the prologue, the Visitor explains, by way of another unnamed narrator, her choice to expel her identity, and to opt for introspection at a third remove: “[T]he Visitor decided, she wouldn’t keep a journal in Berlin, or write about herself in the first person. Rather, she would indulge the luxury of a more distant perspective.”
It is García’s prerogative here not to prescribe her text, neither to herself nor to her characters, though the Visitor makes a point of seeking out Berlin to understand herself. However, the Visitor is always outside of herself; she adapts deftly to anyone who passes by. She merely wanders, like the reader, through her subjects’ stories.
This dispersal of identities is what gives the book its strength. In thematizing the readerly experience as a city anyone can enter, García creates a space for the reader to inject her own history into the book’s various narratives, and she makes this possible by offering stories from World War II to the contemporary era, successfully depicting the condition of living in the city of Berlin as time passes by. But this condition never quite seems to change. Regardless of how different the stories are from each other, they are always already framed either by a desire to arrive, remain in, or leave Germany. Such an emphasis on location contributes to the blending of each character’s idiosyncrasies, to the point where they are no longer individual characters. Rather, they are Berlin, together, formed as one, disjointed, complicated, and multifaceted whole. And yet, interestingly, García’s characters remain willfully self-aware of their condition. Here, nurse Christine Meckel:
As I look at your face, your features are missing. All I can discern are your hair and a bit of your jawline, a sliver of your sunburnt neck. As we gaze out at these gardens, only the edges of the flowerbeds are visible. Na ja, the world is vanishing around me.
It would appear as though Meckel is speaking directly to the Visitor, describing the Visitor and not herself. However, she is characterizing a moment of growing unspecificity where the lines of identity are blurred. Her history is subsumed in that of the city. All she sees are the blurry outlines of the life she understood as her own. Here, the Visitor: “[D]arkness gathered in the secret languages of absence. Faces etched in smoke […] In all these cities, she’d lost herself, disappeared for a time, resurfaced as a new version of herself.”
García’s Berlin may be one that swallows people whole, recycling them as products of its history. Interestingly her characters willingly relinquish their identities, often trying to coax the Visitor to do the same. The characters are aware of themselves as characters of Berlin’s story and systematically encourage the Visitor to become part of this larger narrative. This involves a shedding of identities and a convergence of histories. At times, the characters that the Visitor speaks with push her away just as she is about to discover/reveal their identity. They often correct themselves, address the Visitor directly, make excuses for their statements, and, most importantly, dismiss the Visitor’s presence as an observing eye. For example, Ulla Gräf, president of the fictional (Georgy) Zhukov (Secret) Admiration Society, tells the Visitor: “So, you’ve found me. You’re certainly persistent, I’ll grant you that […] You are sympathetic, Kind Visitor, I can see that. You’re not apt to judge me as my countrymen might […] Don’t go around telling anyone about me.”
While Gräf appears friendly, recognizing the Visitor as an objective bystander, able to look at the situation in Berlin and at Gräf’s life without bias or backstory, she also immediately rejects the possibility of connecting with the Visitor on a first name basis. But these moments of hesitation and tension feel trivial. Yes, Gräf welcomes the Visitor by pushing her away slightly, out of precaution, but as a reader, it’s clear that something larger is at stake — something directly embedded in the text. At one point, a character says, “I am a fixture here now,” and, “I’m told my name is Kaspar Siedel.” There seems to be a distinction between the characters’ awareness of themselves as characters in Berlin’s story and as characters in a novel. Their narratological identities are blurred and undefined. The text functions as a sort of deictic crypt in which their existences can run free, without hindrance, unbound to the restrictions the physical city imposes on them. The self-awareness that García gives her characters allows the text as a whole to function somehow autonomously. Without an identified narrator, the text appears expansively and virtuously unauthored — the product of a cast of characters that shape and define the social topography of the city, recoded as narrative.
García is in fact deploying the old trope of the death of the author. Initially theorized by the French thinker Roland Barthes (1915–1980) at the height of poststructuralism, this idea was first propounded in 1967 in an essay entitled “The Death of the Author,” which stated that, once a text has been written, the author vanishes within it, giving birth in the same movement to the reader. Only the reader can continue the author’s work. In this case, the text is left orphaned, and its characters in search of qualifiers. As one character says, “Sometimes the truth is so outlandish that it’s better to let people believe you’re indulging in fantasy.” The fantasy in question here is that of indulging in Barthes’s metaphor: thinking of a text abandoned by its author, buried deep within the text’s sentences. As the text suggests by directly addressing the Visitor, it’s not an author that it craves. It’s precisely the reader that the characters want, and this is made clear by the way in which the encounters are transcribed, directly involving the reader in their lives so that their stories can live on, be brought to life in language, and enter literary time: “[M]y own life feels no longer than this languorous spring day. Tell me, how is that possible?”
Overall, Here in Berlin is an impeccable linguistic exercise in narratology and a brilliant exploration of the various identities we adhere to in metropolitan environments. García successfully rehumanizes a German postwar trauma of a populace that for so long coped with the making anonymous of people through genocide, the deadening speed of its capitalist structures, and the oppressive world of East Berlin. As for her readers, García adeptly passes them the torch, giving them a little nook in which they can sit and watch the characters go about their lives, spectating and writing, in the intransitive, the city of Berlin. “She didn’t belong here, but there was room for her. Maybe that was enough.”
Michael Valinsky’s work has been published in i-D Magazine, Hyperallergic, OUT Magazine, BOMB Magazine, NewNowNext.com, and Kirkus Reviews, among others. He is the author of .TXT, Zurich: 89plus/LUMA Publications, 2014.