A New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice
"Here in Berlin is one of the most interesting new works of fiction I've read . . . The voices are remarkably distinct, and even with their linguistic mannerisms . . . mark them out as separate people . . . [This novel] is simply very, very good." The New York Times Book Review
Here in Berlin is a portrait of a city through snapshots, an excavation of the stories and ghosts of contemporary Berlinits complex, troubled past still pulsing in the air as it was during World War II. Critically acclaimed novelist Cristina García brings the people of this famed city to life, their stories bristling with regret, desire, and longing.
An unnamed Visitor travels to Berlin with a camera looking for reckonings of her own. The city itself is a charactervibrant and postapocalyptic, flat and featureless except for its rivers, its lakes, its legions of bicyclists. Here in Berlin she encounters a people's history: the Cuban teen taken as a POW on a German submarine only to return home to a family who doesn't believe him; the young Jewish scholar hidden in a sarcophagus until safe passage to England is found; the female lawyer haunted by a childhood of deprivation in the bombed-out suburbs of Berlin who still defends those accused of war crimes; a young nurse with a checkered past who joins the Reich at a medical facility more intent to dispense with the wounded than to heal them; and the son of a zookeeper at the Berlin Zoo, fighting to keep the animals safe from both war and an increasingly starving populace.
A meditation on war and mystery, this an exciting new work by one of our most gifted novelists, one that seeks to align the stories of the past with the stories of the future.
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HERE IN BERLIN:
Lilacs were blooming in Cracauerplatz. The Visitor felt disoriented and alone, an outsider, lost without a map. Her atrophied German stuck in her throat. Thirty-one years had elapsed between her last stay in Germany (for an ill-fated job in Frankfurt) and her return to Berlin in late middle age. The city struck her as post-apocalypticflat and featureless except for its rivers, its lakes, its legions of bicyclists. She found herself nameless: nameless in crowds, nameless alone. Another disappearance in a city with a long history of disappearance acts.
The Visitor's arrival in late April wasn't auspicious. Her luggage was lost for two days. The skies remained overcast. Their vast bleakness heightened her malaise. The apartment in Charlottenburg, on the west side of Berlin, was exactly what she'd wanted: a white cube with nondescript furnishings and a bedroom barely big enough to sleep in. A modest balcony overlooked the Kaiserdamm. The U-bahn was a block away, as was the Lietzensee, a picturesque city lake. After all her careful planning, everything was as she expected except for this: her staggering loneliness.
Why had she come? It boiled down to a story A. told her when they'd first met, at a dinner in her honor at a central New Jersey university. A. was Cuban-American, like her, and a writer. He was fluent in German and a fan of Berlin, often spending lengthy sojourns there. A. mentioned 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. The Visitor was hopelessly intrigued.
The two friends spoke often of political upheavals and the displacements of war, of revolution, the unlikely bedfellows these producedmost specifically, the human fallout from Cuba's long association with the Soviet bloc. All the flotsam and detritus of history, like the Visitor's Cuban-Russian cousin, Vladimirsomeone she'd never metwho was born to her maternal uncle's first marriage to a Muscovite engineer in the 1960s. It was stories like these that the Visitor hoped to find in Berlin.
But the initial clarity of her mission gave way to a paralyzing vagueness during her first days in the city. Was it the jet lag? The long pale nights that seemed to stretch endlessly to dawn? The moths bumping against her windows like insistent ghosts? The Germans' radiant disregard of her? Here she was just another hooded crow perched in a linden tree.
True, there was much weighing her down: the end of her second marriage to a cellist from Iowa; the final rupture from her vicious mother, whom she'd indecorously called madre de mierda on her way out the door. A backwash of memories she preferred to forget. She no longer had a home, or a homeland. She no longer had a mother, nor was she an active mother herself (her twenty-year-old daughter was happily studying in Barcelona). This was her life now: unoccupied, disconnected, alone, invisible. Somehow she'd imagined a grander liberation.
As a child the Visitor had kept diaries, which her mother read during the brief interludes when she wasn't obsessing over her husband's infidelities. No matter that the Visitor (when little) had hidden the diaries under her mattress, or the lining of her winter coat. Before long, she retaliated by planting false stories, fantasizing about a life without her mother in it. She'd understood even then that her best self was her illicit self, the one that provoked the mother, the one the mother couldn't own. So, no, the 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.
Her wanderings in Berlin began tentatively, her encounters awkward and forced. The isolation felt physical, three-dimensionally oppressive, but it fueled a manic movement. The Visitor walked everywhere, often logging upward of ten miles a day. She explored the city, eavesdropped on conversations, walked off her anxiety, all the while lighting a match to her present, reminding herself that she was alive and free. More strenuously still, she signed up for a Zumba class with a former Olympian speed skater, then for water aerobics with octogenarians who left her gasping for air.
The Visitor returned again and again to the zoo, where she practiced her rusty German on the cheetahs and polar bears. To her surprise, she felt most at home in the aquarium. For hours she watched the lolling puffer fish with their bulging cartoon eyes. Officious iridescent taxi fish patrolled the perimeter, tap-tapping against the glass. There were stick insects and locusts, slugs, obese water snakes. The otherwise unremarkable "false map" turtles intrigued her with their evocative name. We're all exiles here, she thought.
On her twelfth day in Berlin, a young father asked the Visitor for directions in German, to which she correctly replied. A turning point. Soon she'd be talking to people in parks, at museums, along the Spree River, in the city's many acres of outdoor cafés. Thus, her mission began.
By the end of World War II, 91 of the 3,715 animals at the Berlin Zoo had survived. These included two lions, an Asian bull elephant, a cackle of hyenas, a hippopotamus bull, ten hamadryas baboons, and a rare black stork. My father, Klaus Bauer, had been the zoo's last keeper before he was called off to war. This was after a severe firebombing had boiled alive the remaining crocodiles and tortoises at the aquarium, and a puma escaped through the flames, only to be shot by a frightened housewife in Lützowplatz. Opportunists benefited from the destruction, partook of crocodile-tail steaks and fashioned sausages from the charred bear meat. But the rats are what most thrived in Berlin.
Thank you for accompanying me this afternoon, Kind Visitor. I do enjoy a walk through the Tiergarten, even on drizzly days. Once, I saw an old man club a duck to death with his cane at this very spot. It was just after the war, and, next to him, on a burnt-out tank, was a fly-poster advertising dance lessons. The times were extraordinary, rivaling anything I've ever read in books. The zoo is near here, in the southwestern corner of the park. I permit myself entrance every month or sonobody bothers charging meto visit the tropical aviaries and the lonely polar bears. Perhaps you've heard of the cub born in captivity here some years ago? Millions swarmed the zoo to get a glimpse of Baby Knut. Unfortunately, the poor creature collapsed and died after five short years.
Today, I promised to speak to you of my father, and so I shall. My earliest memories of him are at this zoo, where I helped him feed the animals on weekends. How he'd loved the antics of the cockatoosas cunning as our politicians, he used to sayand the idiosyncrasies of Jupp, the elderly cheetah, who insisted on having his hindquarters scratched with a rake. It was from the cockatoos' aviary that Vati "borrowed" Miamor, a Cuban Amazon parrot, in order to save it from starvation. But in the commotion of an air raid, Miamor disappeared from our apartment, most likely for someone's dinner.
When the Reich drafted Vati for an army reserve battalion late in the war, he was arthritic and nearing fifty. You might say that my lifeor the heart of it, anywaystopped on the day he left. A peeling poster on our apartment building showed a woman and boy battling a fire with buckets of water. I pretended that they were Mutti and me, and dreamt about stealing a little wood gas car, too. In my fantasy, I drove us to safety, though I could barely ride a bicycle then. Most nights, we raced into the air-raid shelter, to the shrill sound of sirens. Mutti was profoundly deaf, the result of a childhood fever, and she was no longer pretty to anyone but me. As the bombs fell, she rubbed her sternum as if she were erasing a mistake. Sometimes I feared she'd erase herself altogether.
That winter, we watched the city camouflage itself with false treetops in raised netting and decoy buildings to deceive the British bombers. There were rumors of a fake capital being built to the north, but nobody had seen it. Rumors, Kind Visitor, were what we lived on. My friends and I played in the ruins, when we could, taking turns blowing on a beat-up trumpet we'd found. It was our greatest treasure. On the rare evening when there was no Verdunkle, my mother permitted me, against the rules, to light her incandescent lamp. Its hypnotizing hot wire drew an astonishing variety of moths to its flame.
One day my friend Kuno Schulz triumphantly brought home a hunk of horsemeat. Kriegsglück, everyone said, coveting a bloody piece. War luck. On another occasion, Kuno happened across a dead British pilot whose plane had crashed into a building off Nollendorfplatz. As a crowd cautiously gathered, Kuno stole away with the pilot's unopened parachute, a windfall of silk for his mother. Later, Frau Schulz bartered swaths of the silk with the other mothers as they busily converted their Nazi flags to Allied ones. Before long, these were hanging from what was left of their balconies.
In the last weeks of the war, Hitler Youth patrolled our neighborhood with rifles, and some of the older boys we knew rode rickety bicycles into battle with Panzerfausts attached to the handlebars. Of them, only Markus Achziger survivedbut without his legs.
The day the Russians reached Berlin, my mother gave me a pair of my own unraveling socks embroidered with the number 9. I'd forgotten it was my birthday. For supper, Mutti and I ate nettles soup (though I dreamt every night of mashed potatoes sprinkled with crisp bacon) and prayed to God for mercy. In the final terrifying days of battle, my ordinarily meek mother joined a band of housewives who looted whatever they could. Never mind that such behavior was punishable by death. Kind Visitor, what once had been inconceivable became commonplace; grace and disgrace, one and the same.
I watched camels and shaggy Cossack ponies trudging down Unter den Linden. Russian infantrymen in tunics and fur caps rode gypsy wagons and phaetons and every manner of conveyance. People whispered that the Ivans were lighting campfires in the Reichstagour Reichstag!and violating women of all ages. Here, at last, were the savages we'd been taught to fear. That summer, the Americans arrived in their gleaming jeeps. How awestruck we were by the black GIs! We crowded around them for chocolates and chewing gum, which they handed out more freely than the other soldiers.
Miraculously, Vati returned home after the defeat. In our district, I was the only child with a living father. He and I toured what was left of the zoo: the burnt-out elephant house (where a bull had frantically trumpeted the coming doom); the scorched treetops where dozens of monkeys had perished. We spoke of the leopards and panthers, jaguars and apes that had escaped after a particularly bad raid, the snakes slithering through terrified crowds fleeing the fires and bombs. And yet, I felt lucky. Most of my surviving friends were raised by their widowed mothers. Those who'd lost both parents got by as best they could, digging through the rubble, fighting over scraps like wild dogs. Who knew what became of them? Even the savvy Kuno, with his Kriegsglück, disappeared without a trace. Knowing him, he probably ended up in your San Francisco driving a fancy Cadillac.
My father? Kind Visitor, you must understand that, once, Vati had been a man whose happiness had seemed to me as predictable as the sun. Upon his return, he fell into a catatonic state that was impervious even to Mutti's devoted ministrations. And the blisters on his feet, the ones he got from his long march home, never healed. Whatever hope we had soured to futility.
At his funeral in 1951, two members of his battalion showed up from Hamburg to pay their respects. Mutti insisted that I show them around the dilapidated zoo. To my surprise, one of the old lions was still alive and weakly roaring. The veterans drank and drank, shedding no light regarding their duties on the Eastern front. Instead they shook their heads dully and took turns clapping me on the back, repeating the same stock phrase: Your father was an honorable man, the most honorable among us.
Sometimes, Kind Visitor, I long to send letters to the past . . . but who would write back?
Table of ContentsCONTENTS
I. THE FLAMING COMMON 9
Dance Craze 47
II. INVISIBLE BODIES 55
The Visitor 57
Nazi Sex Club 61
Eye Doctor 65
Little Goldfish 71
The Captain 75
III. WAR FUGUES 105
The Visitor 107
Breeder of Gods 117
TRIO (CODA) 141
Gypsy 151 r
IV. LAST RITES 155
The Visitor 157
Zhukov (Secret) Admiration Society for Ladies 185
Last Kaffee 193