How Diverse Writers Are Redefining the Berlin Novel

Replacing the myth of expat Berlin with something more complex and more real

Christopher Isherwood created the Berlin myth. From his apartment in Nollendorfstraße 17, where he lived from March 1929 to February 1933, Isherwood wrote about entrepreneurial astrologers, aging prostitutes, teenage communists, rich businessmen who bought gifts not just for their lovers but for their lovers’ friends. Isherwood depicted a city where sex — gay, straight, anything in between — was given cheaply and enthusiastically. A popular gay bar of the time was called the Eldorado. In the Anglophone imagination, that’s largely what Berlin still is: a kind of El Dorado, a wondrous place, free of consequences and the banal rigors of daily life.

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In one sense Isherwood’s vision was prophetic. In Schöneberg, his old neighborhood, the gay excess of his time has reemerged as a way of life. A man cries across a rainy square up to another man on a balcony: Willst du ficken, Schatz? An underemployed gay porn actor looks out from his heated shop at the cold street. Beautiful, surly baristas in Adidas sportswear — Isherwood’s type — serve coffee with a frown. The stuffed-up buy cold medicine at a pharmacy named after the sexuality researcher Magnus Hirschfeld. A cobbler promises to fix heels on the spot. Klaus Wowereit, the first gay mayor of Berlin, called Berlin “poor, but sexy anyway” in 2003. That was Isherwood-style branding.

But Isherwood’s books represent only one side of the Berlin story. He came to Berlin at the height of inflation, a white man with a posh accent and pounds in his pocket, and Berliners was more than willing to satisfy his desires. Recent English-language novels by people of color and women complicate that narrative by showing a city whose generosity was always dependent on who you were and what you had to spend. They illustrate the modern Berlin: richer, resurgent, the free-for-all nearly gone, replaced by new traumas and joys. Without the insulation of whiteness, maleness and money, the place, like so many Western cities, is harsher and more calculating. A city is always many things, which is why its story must be told by many voices. That’s how myth gains depth.

A city is always many things, which is why its story must be told by many voices. That’s how myth gains depth.

In Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (1939), the narrator quickly meets a cast of fascinating characters. He falls in with — doesn’t that cliché elide maddeningly the complicated dynamics of acceptance? — an eccentric cabaret diva, a masochistic middle-aged Englishman, a Jewish heiress, a gorgeous working-class gay man and his brownshirt-sympathizing brother. Not everyone who moves to Berlin is welcomed with such abandon. In Chloe Aridjis’ spare, affecting novel Book of Clouds (2009), loneliness is the narrator’s only constant. Her solitude is “stagnant, infertile.” She tries to befriend her neighbor, a gym trainer who dumps the narrator when it becomes clear that she’s out of shape. The lonelier she gets, the more oppressive Berlin becomes. Out dancing one night, the narrator receives an invitation to join some tourists on a tour of an underground “Gestapo bowling alley.” The Nazi officers’ scores are still legible on a chalkboard. “I had the uncomfortable sensation that we delegates of the present were intruding on the past, every step of ours widening the incision,” Aridjis writes. The other members of the group seem able to take the grotesque scene in stride and leave, but the narrator, haunted, decides to go back and wipe the bowling scores away. She gets stuck underground, alone in the pitch-black depths of history.

The protagonist of Book of Clouds is from Mexico City, and often wonders about the somber sterility of Berlin’s architecture. She visits Marzahn, in the East, which Aridjis describes as “a place with little or no birdsong, as if even the trees were made of concrete.” Berlin is a study in grays. This truth is also essential to Sharon Dodua Otoo’s novella Synchronicity: The Original Story (2015). In the magical realism-inflected work, the protagonist is a graphic designer, a black British woman of African heritage, who has inherited an illness that gradually robs her of her ability to see color. “My days were merging into a kaleidoscope of nondescript grays,” Otoo writes. This inventive conceit allows Otoo to reflect on the construction of her identity in Berlin. Before the illness hits, she points out every time she interacts with a white character, flipping the ludicrous but prevalent idea of a “default” skin color (an idea Isherwood’s Berlin novels leave unexamined) in its head. Once Otoo’s narrator loses brown, though, she is unable to look at herself at the mirror, knowing she’ll see herself in the grim grayscale of her chosen home. Without color, how will she feel that she’s different from the Germans who “authoritatively” say things like “Africans need to dress [warmly] in Europe because they miss the desert heat of their homeland”? How can she retain her identity in a place that is unprepared for her existence?

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Otoo’s main preoccupation is color, of objects and skin, but she also describes Berlin’s impatient reinvention. “The thought of skidding down the main and looking at things I could no longer afford, in shops I no longer frequented, run by people I no longer respected, didn’t appeal to me at all,” she writes. Gentrification feels like a personal betrayal. In Kate McNaughton’s novel How I Lose You (2018), a Berliner says, “I miss the ruins. They made you feel more free than all this money.” Each of the main characters in McNaughton’s novel knows a different Berlin, and it’s these varying cities which define them and their relationships to one another. Isherwood’s Berlin stories often feature adrift young people, but McNaughton gives her characters backstories which tie them to the place: The narrator, Eva, who was raised in England by a British father and a German mother, has an unexamined reluctance to visit. Her mother grew up in East Berlin under Communism, fleeing by boat and promising never to go back. Eva’s husband Adam, who dies at the beginning of the novel, lived and worked there in his youth. An unencumbered young British man like Isherwood, Adam is the only character able to see the city with a certain lightness, because he doesn’t have a personal stake in its history. This puts Eva’s relationship to the “dark, shadowy, hard to decipher” Berlin in starker relief. Mother and child, even husband and wife can talk about it and not realize they are discussing completely different places. “Berlin was changing too fast, with its building sites on every street corner, its general air of upheaval,” McNaughton writes. “What could be left of the city Adam discovered twenty years ago? What could be left of the city her mother had been exiled from thirty years ago?” How I Lose You is a book about grief that derives a thriller’s momentum from its characters’ competing experiences of Berlin. All these Berlins are real, and yet they seem mutually exclusive.

All these Berlins are real, and yet they seem mutually exclusive.

“That was the year to come to Berlin, 1977,” says Jed, the narrator of Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland (2016). That’s a good joke — back when I moved here is the Berlin expat’s favorite conversation starter. Pinckney’s novel, about a recently sober black gay man who is explicitly following in Isherwood’s footsteps by moving from Chicago to Berlin in the late ’80s, is touching, dexterous, and deeply knowledgeable about the city, including its least sexy corners, like Siemensstadt and Dahlem. Jed comes to Berlin dreaming of a decadent expat life, but gets repeatedly cockblocked by his shyness and fragile sobriety. He falls for a hunky straight white engineer and then, finally, has an ecstatic affair with a black Frenchmen: “In the terrifying beginnings of the worldwide AIDS epidemic, Berlin had kept its Isherwood promises to me.” Like Otoo’s narrator, however, Jed finds that the racism he tried to flee has followed him. In 1962, James Baldwin wrote that “Negroes do not, strictly speaking, exist in any other” country besides America, but Pinckney’s narrator knows better. Clerks still keep an eye on him whenever he enters a store in Berlin: “If I wasn’t thinking I was special, then maybe I made the mistake of thinking Berlin was.” Still, the Wall comes down and Jed stays in the city, observing, “You could crawl into the disfigured city as into a shell. You could treat it either as an inhabited ruin or a blank space.” Jed is able to do what Isherwood couldn’t: he remains.

People keep moving to the city from everywhere, the kind of people with the insight to see the place as it really is.

Usually, the expat novel ends when its protagonist leaves, having learned something about himself while abroad. Isherwood went back to England and eventually emigrated to the United States. In Synchronicity, How I Lose You, and Black Deutschland, however, the main characters all decide to take Berlin as an adopted home. “There was no there where I came from anymore,” Pinckney writes, and the other protagonists seem to agree. Even if the city stopped being cool in ’77, it continues changing rapidly, which is a comfort to the rootless exile. Today, Berlin’s ruins are almost all gone. Six days a week, bulldozers tear down the Soviet barracks, basketball court, and theater at Vogelsang; across from the Berlin Wall, Mercedes-Benz builds a brand-new square and names it after itself. Meanwhile, Syrians turn Sonnenallee into the new vibrant heart of Arab life in Europe. Clubs successfully fend off attempted takeovers by real estate speculators. People keep moving to the city from everywhere, the kind of people with the insight to see the place as it really is. Infinite Berlin tales are still waiting to be told.

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