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Dreams that fade and die

24 November 2012

9:00 AM

24 November 2012

9:00 AM

Roads to Berlin Cees Nooteboom, translated by Laura Watkinson

Maclehose Press, pp.400, £20

The Dutch writer, Cees Nooteboom, was living in West Berlin in 1989 when the gates opened and the Wall finally came down. At the time he wrote a series of essays about what was happening around him, which were published to great acclaim in Germany and form the first part of Roads to Berlin.

He describes a revolution taking place on his doorstep, but there is no shooting in the streets. He goes to the theatre and museums as normal, but his German friends feel at every instant that they are making history, as though all actions and words have become denser and more lasting. It’s an apposite feeling in a city where, as he says, the past feels at home.

Most strikingly, the placards held up by demonstrators are loaned to a museum even while the demonstrations are in progress, so that people can immediately view how their present might become their future. There is a concomitant in the Eastern museum of the GDR, where the spectacles, keys and wallets of former leaders are on display as relics, and the exhibits detail capitalist exploitation in the other, West Germany.

Nooteboom reports not only going to the Brandenburger Tor on that first night of ecstatic release, but also the scares then felt about the future that have not, in fact, come to pass. The most alarmist foreboding is that some inherent grain of militarism might resurface, and that a united Germany would again try to impose its destiny on the rest of Europe.

There is also the undefined hostility between the two Germanies to life with each other: a Western journalist talks about how everyone in the East walks oddly in trainers, because ‘they’ve been wearing army boots all their lives’, and an Eastern bookseller complains that ‘now everything’s allowed, but nothing’s possible, because my shop’s been bought by a chain. You don’t have to read Updike or Goethe to sell books about sex or travel guides.’

Nooteboom’s interests dovetail with the way in which the Germans’ idea of themselves has for centuries been formulated through engagement with the past. He discusses the 18th- and 19th-century belief that Germans and Germany were the true heirs of Ancient Greece, and visits the Doric temples and statues of Athena scattered across many of Germany’s cities.

In 1990, being German meant engaging with all the horrors and tumult of the 20th century within the older narrative of German history: how (or whether) to create a unified German state. He includes a photograph of the square in Nuremburg where the rallies were held, in which a white lorry is parked in the rain. In the background is the tribune on which the leaders stood: blank, monolithic totalitarian architecture, shaped not unlike a temple, with rows of decorative square columns marked across it in brick.

Because Nooteboom approaches this German sensibility so closely, we see the change from 1989 to the present in what remains inexplicit in his writing. The assumptions of that time, the promise of utopia in politics, all evanesce in his later visits to Berlin.

The torrent of German politics slows to the broad, steady flow of prosperous democracy, to Merkel and the euro. The old border becomes invisible, marked only by a sign. History retreats to the past and time passes also in its observer. Nooteboom loses the old jokes about Japanese tourists or the incidental references to beautiful women. There is a melancholy in his writing and a nostalgia for the past, both of which are very German — or at least used to be.

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