On se left you see se Siegessäule

Brian Melican finds erudite humour in a book by  German comedian and former tour guide Tilman Birr…

A few weeks back, I came across a review of a book called On se left you see se Siegessäule: Erlebnisse eines Stadtbilderkärers whose title intrigued me enough to procure it.

As an Englishman who has learnt German, just the moniker on its own was enough to bring a wry smile to my face: read in German, the title gives you the typical accent of a German trying (and failing) to master that peculiarly tricky English dental fricative, the “th” sound: i.e. “On ze left, you see ze Ziegessoile.”

In the book, poetry-slammer, on-stage voice-artist, and general entertainer Tilman Birr gives a lightly fictionalised account of a post-student-days-summer spent working as a tour guide on the Berlin Spree River boats – and if you read good German, this informative comedy tale is well worth a read.

Birr’s narrator (who, we have every reason to believe, is Birr himself) recounts the perils, pitfalls, and pleasures of that job we’ve all asked ourselves countless questions about.

Depending on the guide, I usually ending up wondering either “How can you say the same thing to 10 groups of people every day and still make it sound fresh” or, conversely, “Just when did your will to live finally limp out of your body and get lodged in the microphone?”

Birr gives us the other perspective: but this isn’t just a diatribe against tourists, who of course with their bumbags and stupid questions always make an inviting comedy target. Birr’s sharp wit is directed against everyone, including his former colleagues with their typical Berlin chips on their shoulders, and his former friends as they move out of their carefree twenties and into their death-by-office thirties.

In fact, Birr is the perfect satirist: an outsider with very little sympathy for anyone, including himself and his own kind. Born in the West, he hates the arrogance and lack of self-awareness of the self-satisfied professional classes there – especially in their incarnation as tourists – but Berlin’s stereotypical stock of gruff-but-chirpy, cheeky-chappy types who can’t answer even the simplest question without some kind of quip get on his nerves too.

Siegessäule – you’ll find it on se left.

Then there are the various national characteristics of the tourists on the boat: the French with their proverbial inability to speak foreign languages; the Spanish with their stentorian speaking voices; and the British, with both of the former attributes plus an innate inability to handle their booze.

Birr is at his strongest when observing these stereotypes. He has a strong and admirable awareness that they are just that – stereotypes – but ones which, while clichéd, are not without their basis in reality, and is therefore generous in his depictions.

Instead of just going for the kill, he shows us his own mistakes and his own preconceptions, too, and everybody gets to say to their bit.

A wonderful example is the difficulties he gets into with the word Stadtbilderklärer. It’s an unusually round-about way of saying tour guide, an occupation usually referred to elsewhere in Germany as Fremdenführer or Reisegruppenführer, and Birr has his own difficulties remembering it.

We learn, with him, that the word was invented in GDR days so as to provide an (overly) politically-correct job title without the problematic word Führer in it.

One day, however, with a stinking hangover, Birr has the worst imaginable Freudian slip, introducing himself not only as a Fremdenführer (which is weakly tainted enough to be inoffensive), but as the Führer – in English. His own sozzled stupidity then leads to the worst possible conduct both on the part of British tourists, who disembark smirking and using every last word of German they can remember from war films, and an American tourist whose self-righteous rage is clearly rooted in those most typical of mid-Western assumptions: firstly, that everyone abroad must be able to speak brilliant English all of the time (even when horrendously hung-over); and secondly, that everyone abroad would be speaking Russian, or perhaps German, if it weren’t for America.

Birr navigates linguistic grey areas with true aplomb. He has an excellent German writing style, can quote at length perfectly from English and French, and is clearly very knowledgeable both about his own and other cultures. He’s far less strong on the story-telling aspect of things, however: while each scene in itself is neatly structured and well-paced, the book as a whole lacks drive and anything like an engaging plot; there is little character development, and we leave Birr pretty much as we met him.

This is perhaps easily explained by the fact that Birr is used to delivering short pieces on stage and, of course, by the overall framework of the book itself. He becomes a boat tour guide to avoid getting a proper job so that he can continue in his typically relaxed, mid-to-late-twenties Berlin-bohemian existence.

Birr – funny, educational AND musical

It would be a betrayal of this philosophy of “just getting by” – or sich durchwurschteln as it’s known – if Birr were to change anything. In that sense, the book is very much like Sven Regener’s famous Herr Lehmann (available in English as Berlin Blues): the lack of structure and progress is a necessary reflection of the writer’s refusal of structure and progress – but this doesn’t necessarily make for a great read.

On se left… is therefore best read as what it is: a series of sketches. It took me a few weeks, interspersed with some other stuff, but I had a lot of laughs along the way and learned an awful lot about how somebody socialised in West Germany in the 1980s and 1990s views today’s Berlin.

And that is an important point of view, with many of the people who make Berlin what it has become today hailing from elsewhere in Germany. Their complex relationship to the city – their celebration of Berlin’s sharper side mixed with their eventual disillusionment when it hits them personally – is very well portrayed here.

And if you’ve got good German, but aren’t quite at the level where you can make the same kind of advanced ironic jokes you do in English, sharpen your pencils and take notes as you go.

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