Suzanne Munshower profiles her ten favourite books about the Berlin wall…
At 1 am on 13 August 1961, barbed wire was rolled out in the first step of building a wall that would split a city for more than quarter of a century. These books can provide a better understanding of the geography of, the history behind and the collateral damage caused by this monument to humankind’s perversity.
The starting point for me is Frederick Taylor’s The Berlin Wall because of its masterful detailing of events leading to the Wall’s construction and demolition. This lively and thought-provoking book is a must for experiencing divided Berlin not just with politicos such as Willy Brandt, John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson, but with the multitudes who woke one morning to find friends, neighbours and even family suddenly a world away.
Twelve Years, Joel Agee’s low-key memoir of his Jewish-American Communist boyhood in pre-Wall Berlin, drives home the otherness of drüben (“over there”) and the scorn reserved for Republikflüchtige, people fleeing to the west. By the time he left Germany in 1960, Agee, once an enthusiastic “red diaper baby”, had weathered the pain and pathos of his mother and stepfather’s commitment to a party that had already failed all but its most ardent believers.
It’s this pre-Wall yet segregated city that takes centre stage in The Innocent, its disconnection as much a character as the novel’s young English protagonist. Starting from the true story of a joint CIA-MI6 surveillance project, Ian McEwan has written an edge-of-the-seat espionage story that’s also a searing tale of lost innocence and the untrustworthiness of naivete. His Berlin is both corrupted and corrupting, west as well as east.
Because he’s a hell of a storyteller, I forgive Len Deighton his irritating habit of supplying backstory through contrived conversations starting, “Remember when we…?” Out of several books set in Berlin, Berlin Game is one of his most compelling. Spymaster Bernie Samson crosses and recrosses East Berlin checkpoints as he schemes to get an operative out of the east and discover who’s double-crossing him. Somebody’s got to lose, but it won’t be the reader of this sly, sardonic tale.
Some stayed, some left, some died trying. And Peter Schneider’s The Wall Jumper tells their stories in what might be the best Wall fiction ever written. Living in the west of this metropolis, the narrator confesses, “I could orient myself better in New York than in the half-city just a little over three miles from my apartment.” Written in 1982, with the end nowhere in sight, this is a riveting portrait of a city and a people trapped by mental as well as physical walls.
Anna Funder came to Berlin from Australia to meet the Wall’s veterans, and while the subjectivity in Stasiland isn’t to everyone’s taste, I marvel at her graceful interweaving of interviews. From politically repressed musicians such as the late Klaus Renft, to retired Stasi officers mourning the glory days of their Normannenstrasse fortress, East Berliners tell what it was like and is like in a book that runs the gamut from Potsdam to Prenzlauer Berg and from amusement to despair.
East is east, but the “East of the West” was – and remains – gritty, working-class Kreuzberg. Two novels set there capture the days immediately preceding that fateful 9 November.
Philip Hensher’s Pleasured is the sharply etched saga of a disaffected, drifting young man whose life changes when he agrees to help a British do-gooder jumpstart the revolution by distributing free Ecstasy in the east. As the separate and unequal sides of Berlin hurtle toward fusion, he gets more than he bargained for in a tragicomedy of loss and redemption
On the other hand, living in the shadow of the Wall barely seems to register with the hard-partying characters in Sven Regener’s Berlin Blues. A veritable slacker’s guide to 1989 Berlin, this coming-of-age story is a window on to the lives of young West Berliners determinedly unaware of how much the fortifications ruled their lives. Only we readers, with hindsight, can see it.
Finally, there are two post-Wall books that shouldn’t be missed: The File by Guardian columnist Timothy Garton Ash and Russian Disco by Wladimir Kaminer.
When Garton Ash returned to Berlin 15 years after living there and requested his Stasi binder, it was passed to him with the words: “You have a very interesting file.” Thereby hangs a tale, and we join him in disinterring the entries, skipping between his former life as a research student and later confrontations with the friends and colleagues who had once informed on him.
Shortly before Garton Ash revisited Berlin, Kaminer arrived, emigrating from Russia to later become Berlin’s most famous DJ and then a best-selling author. His gently sardonic Russian Disco is a collection of wry sketches best summed up by its subtitle, Tales of Everyday Madness on the Streets of Berlin. This East Berlin is closest to the trendy but still edgy east side of the city as it exists today.
Witty, angry, lyrical and moving, these books – like the few pieces of that heartless barrier still standing in Berlin – make the oppressive Wall real and its fall a cause for celebration not be missed.
About The Author
This article first appeared in the Guardian and was reprinted with kind permission by its author, Suzanne Munshower, a journalist living in Umbria and Berlin. You can follow Suzanne on Twitter.