Nicolas Hausdorf, author of a renowned ‘superstructural tourist guide to Berlin,’ reviews a new literary guide to that great city by one of the HKRB’s own, Marcel Krueger.
Paul Sullivan and Marcel Krueger, Berlin: A Literary Guide for Travellers (I.B. Taurus, 2016) 272pp.
Arguably, 2016 Berlin has lost a good portion of it post-reunification charms. While the city must still appear comparably vast and overdimensioned to many a masochistic caged inhabitant of Paris, London, Tokyo, or New York (or hey: Hong Kong!), the vast gaps that used to disrupt the city’s hyper-Haussmannian allure and gave the city its specific charm are currently being filled with the sad and uniform capitalist-realist-styled glass and steel chunks that announce the advent of an ever increasing influx of hip newcomers-cum young urban professionals. Their latest wave appears to be more square than ever as Berlin matures away from an isolated dreamspace heterotopian island in East Germany to insert itself into the neofascist taxonomy of global “creative capitals”.
Today, a new limitless and nomadic class, whose normalising impact is inevitably set on by spiraling prices for the amenities of everyday life and living space, settles in places across the globe mostly to obtain comparative advantages and often cares little about a city’s local culture or history. While 21st century creative cities are generally the playgrounds for this adolescent consumer attitude which demands only the uniform and faceless modern but cares little about specific local customs, Berlin in particular must be apt to serve as a place for such behavior: haunted by the spirit and violence of the Nuremberg trials, history in Germany often rhymes with vague blanket shame and precociously assumed guilt. Such secularised original sin is the regulating mechanism without which the politics and culture of the post-war Republic cannot be imagined. The recent high speed transformation of Berlin perhaps makes it thus particularly interesting to review the perspectives of the writer – this longing, whingy, individualist and powerless social waste product and relatively recent historical subjectivity of bourgeois society that supplies some glamour and attire to being a marginalised, declassed, down-and-out, and suicidal in waiting- on a city.
Sullivan and Krueger’s Berlin – A Literary Guide for Travelers thus serves as a welcome invitation to review the city through the eyes of a number of compelling and absorbing characters. In addition to both authors being prolific travel writers, Sullivan is known for running “berlinslowtravel.com”, a moody website addressing the local English speaking crowd by reviewing Berlin sights and activities. The book is a similarly chilled and flaneuresque drift across Berlin’s main neighbourhoods. Readers are taken on a stroll from Mitte, to Alexanderplatz, Charlottenburg, Grunewald and Wannsee, Schöneberg, Wedding and Moabit, Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, and Prenzlauer Berg, thus essentially covering the gist of city territory providing Berlin with its current international imaginary of cool and hype (Wait, Neukölln- “the epicenter of cool” is excluded- how refreshing!).
Following the gentle guidance of the writers who tactfully garnish their own exhaustive knowledge with the witty and at times devastating observations and verdicts of a wide array of Berlin’s dramatic poets, local aristocracy, artistic and political darling, we quite fascinatingly learn about what appears to be an oftentimes inert character of city boroughs pervasively transcending time until today: Berlin’s Mitte quarters around Unter den Linden, for example, had always been considered some sort stuffy and dead arriviste-royalist fantasy; Alexanderplatz’s midnight smell of drunk resentment-fueled knife fights – a current hot topic occupying authorities – is nothing historically novel, and Wedding is still the same melting pot of bickering proletarianised misery it was centuries ago. The reader revisits these places as composite cognitive and topographical architectures listening to anecdotes encompassing cultural favourites entangled to varying degrees in Berlin’s psychocultural fabric: from Max Weber, Joseph Roth, to Wim Wenders, E.T.A. Hoffmann, George Grosz, Heinrich von Kleist, Edvard Munch, Robert Walser, Walter Benjamin, and David Bowie,(to name but a few), the list is as multiform as it is exhaustive.
In the process, the authors remind the reader of the city’s loveable edgy and seemingly inalterable essence and poetic quality which might at times get a bit lost when Berlin’s concrete grey and angry street squabble impose themselves as the dominant impression for its masses of xeno-ephidrine-powered party tribes and Vitamin-D-deprived burn outs in the city’s harsh winter months. With ease Krueger and Sullivan swing from neighbourhood to neighbourhood whilst introducing their protagonists with biographies, intellectual legacy, and oftentimes quirky local anecdotes in a pleasant and conversational style. For example, readers can find an array of amusing and devastating facts about their favourite suburbs like Wedding, Berlin’s latest uberhyped Brooklynesque, refurbished factory-grey, misery-prone gentrification hotspot:
“The district’s name comes from the medieval village Weddingcke, which was founded here in 1384. Abandoned a century later, the area remained more or less an urban wilderness that was literally referred to as a ‘desert’ on old maps. It was even purported to be haunted by Satan: during Berlin’s last witch trial in 1728, miller’s daughter Miss D. Steffin confessed to having copulated with the devil in Wedding.”
They will also find well researched trivia and anecdotes about the writers that have shaped the place and German culture in general. About figures like Theodor Fontane, for example, whose steady mediocrity as a writer most pupils still have to endure as part of German public school curricula. According to the writers, Fontane, had also been working for the Prussian intelligence services, which perhaps in part explains his steady success as a writer.
In all, Berlin-A Literary Guide, is a lively and entertaining stroll through a historical Berlin covering a big section of at least those writers and figures who are currently interesting to intellectuals. The book is also quite beautifully laid out, perhaps only the photographs seem a bit out of place as they rather reminisce some sterile 1990s motel room decorations. Then again, perhaps, this makes the book very “Berlin”. In each case, they alter little of the fact that Krueger and Sullivan supply an impressively dense, well- researched, entertaining, and multifaceted work adequately reminding the interested reader/ tourist/ resident that life in the “infernal cesspool and paradise in one”, to use the words of Austrian writer Hans Flesch von Brünningen, has always been a lively locus of multiform political struggle, romantic despair, and aesthetic ambition.
 In the the Clouscardian sense: ultra-permissive and mercilessly merchandised and commoditised
Nicolas Hausdorf is an editor, analyst, and essayist. His essay “Superstructural Berlin”, an experimental sociology of Germany’s capital (with illustrations by Alexander Goller) has been published by Zero Books.
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