The shadow line
Once, in 1973, a Switzerland-bound train I was in with my parents stopped for a few minutes at Bonn. A soldier came into our compartment and sat opposite us, and got off at the next stop: it seems fantastic, but it is true. For many years, this was my only claim to having been in Germany.
It’s now more than a month since I entered Berlin for the first time. We flew into the Tegel airport; oddly, for a capital city, there is no pre-eminent international airport in Berlin. This is in keeping with its history; its complexity; its shyness of landmarks and its proliferation of them; its dubious but continuing fascination with its emblems of the past; its being situated in a constant narrative of relocation – mental, ideological, physical, geographic. So, there is the ‘old’ city centre and the ‘new’ city centre, the ‘old’ town hall and the ‘new’ town hall; but these inscriptions of ‘old’ and ‘new’ are themselves fairly recent. The expected movements of history have been compressed unnaturally; it’s a little like being in Calcutta during the Pujas, but on a long-term basis, so that one might almost hope to become inured (who knows?) to an intertwining of the banal, the historic, the allegorical and the domestic.
It was a brilliant summer. It took me by surprise: this natural affluence of daylight in the midst of such palpable material affluence was difficult to digest. I thought, blinking in the sun, of those pre-war summers when Stephen Spender and company descended on Berlin, to sunbathe with god-like blonde boys, and also of the vanishing, in an instant, of sensual innocence, political blindness, devastating pain, into the vacancy of this present-day, new-millennial happiness. Bathed in light, I was there with Spender, in the Thirties, as I could never have been if I had lived then, and I was here, in post-unification, post-Schroeder, post-Iraq Berlin.
We stayed in a lovely flat in Schoeneberg (‘beautiful hill’, apparently, though there was no hill in sight) with large windows and wooden floors, and that most unEnglish of promontories, a balcony; the flat was spacious enough for a dog, let alone humans, to be content in. There was no dog; but my new friend’s ‘children’ – a blonde sixteen-year-old boy and a dark-haired nineteen-year-old girl – kept coming in, going out. My friend and his wife no longer lived with each other; they spoke to each other on the phone and shared the children; they had become blood relations. His name was Reinhold (‘Call me Reini’), and he taught English at the University of Magdeburg in the former East Germany, where, in four days, I was to read out my stories.
I went out and stood on the balcony and surveyed the buildings opposite. More reticent but no less compelling than cathedrals and temples, they wouldn’t give up their secrets in a glance. Schoeneberg, Reini said, had been a mixture of economic classes and religions before the war; people of varying income groups had lived here, and not a small number of Jews. (I discovered later that the area used to be called the ‘Jewish Switzerland’, and had a sizeable upper-middle-class Jewish population at the turn of the century.) ‘Tagore might have come here,’ he beamed. Why? ‘Einstein lived here. If they met in Berlin, it might have been here!’
The houses I saw from the balcony, like the building I was in, had been erected in the Twenties; they had miraculously survived the bombing. Thus, some of the residential areas of Berlin, which escaped both the bombs and the social levelling of East Berlin, have an extraordinarily ambiguous ‘inner weather’. There are certain cities whose residential districts are even more revelatory to the outsider than their monuments and landmarks. Calcutta, I’d say, is one, for a walk in Mandeville Gardens or a drive through Bhowanipore or Alipore is much more instructive and charged with excitement for the visitor than a pilgrimage to the Victoria Memorial. Berlin, I think, is another.
Next morning (again, glorious), Reini said he’d take us – me, my wife, our daughter – for a walk around Schoeneberg. On a plaque at the bottom of the façade of a nearby block of flats, partly hidden by the undergrowth, was the message that Einstein had resided here. We crossed the main road, further rows of buildings, and a bridge. We came to the ‘old’ town hall and the ‘old’ city centre. Before the wall fell, the Schoeneberg town hall had been the town hall of West Berlin. Happy to be at the secure centre of an American colony, it displayed lapidary words from John F. Kennedy addressed to West Germans. At midday, the stentorian chimes of the ‘freedom bell’ rang out, as they had for fifty years, once a signal to benighted East Berliners that liberty and democracy would one day be theirs. Unlike the Iraqis, the West Germans, till recently anyway, were happy with their liberators (and had chosen to forget their Russian ones).
On our way back our companion pointed out signs that hung from posts on the pavement, black German words on a white background. I recognized only ‘Juden’ as common to them all. These signs were meant to remind you of the exact day when, say, Jews became barred from taking PhDs. Another proclaimed the date when they were deemed ineligible to become professional classical musicians. Another recorded the day when Jews were denied access to well-known areas of recreation. The dates ranged from the late Twenties to the late Thirties.
Thinking of those signs, I’m reminded of Walter Benjamin and his essay ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, for two related reasons. The first is obvious: Benjamin’s own history, his destiny and aborted career, his suicide after the fall of Paris in 1940, are inextricable from the history the signs narrate. It is only after walking around Schoeneberg that I understand something of the panic that fuelled his eloquence: ‘The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not an exception but the rule’; and, ‘The current amazement that the things we are experiencing [that is, fascism] are “still” possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical’.
Part of Benjamin’s critique of what he calls the ‘empty, homogeneous time’ of Western history – of the idea that Western history, with its narrative of rationality and progress, stands as a universal paradigm of history itself – surely involves his violently endangered Jewish identity. It was the inability of German liberals and opponents of fascism to imagine outside that paradigm, to imagine in what way fascism might be happening beyond and outside it, that helps bring fascism, in Benjamin’s eyes, into existence. The same might be said of many secular individuals and political parties in India – the problem is not just the calculated connivance with fascism, but the inability to imagine it is really present, to acknowledge that it is not an element in our secular history with which we can quarrel on our own terms.
The other thing that struck me gradually, as I looked at these signs – astonishing, estranging, and puzzling – is the profound, as-yet-unfathomed importance of the Holocaust to European identity and self-consciousness. This is something I hadn’t quite grasped till I travelled to Berlin. Obscene though it might be to say so, it seems that the obsessive righteousness, memorialization and remorse surrounding the Holocaust – in Berlin, in Germany, but also everywhere in Europe – suggest that it, too, has become an all-important component of that ‘empty, homogeneous time’ without which history would be unimaginable (although it is imaginable without many other traumas of the twentieth century). The Holocaust cannot be replicated or repeated; it has been universalized, almost aestheticized, with the authority only Europe has, or has had, to universalize and aestheticize. Both Jew and European non-Jew are hurt and outraged if any comparison is made, say, between what is happening in Israel and Palestine and what happened in Europe. ‘The “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule’, but, ironically, this statement is doomed to be proven true only in retrospect.
In the afternoon, we slept. We were heavy with jet-lag. When we woke, we found Reini was waiting for us. We set out in his car from Schoeneberg at about half-past four. Summer days in Europe are interminable; as the afternoon expanded, it seemed we’d woken up at an untimely hour in the latter half of the day not only to a new time zone, but to the extension of possibility.
Reini drove us to Nollendorfstrasse, where, in a rented room, Isherwood met and became familiar with some of the characters in Goodbye to Berlin, and with the ‘deep, solemn, massive street’ itself. His pressing reason for being in Berlin – his search for working-class boys – is, of course, mentioned in neither of the Berlin novels. Is it this story of unspoken desire that gives the language of these novels, especially Goodbye to Berlin, its character, its deceptive transparency, its constant, low-key melody; for what’s literary style but a negotiation between the sayable and the unsayable? The unsayable, in the Thirties, was a way of life.
The next day, I’d return here with my wife and daughter, walk down Nollendorfplatz with its shops and restaurants, eat there, and walk back to Nollendorfstrasse. Not far from Isherwood’s abode, a man was arranging things for a jumble sale. Mainly furniture and household objects, which had an exquisiteness that, my wife observed, only European objects once had. We asked how much a small white porcelain swan, its neck and head bent over the edge of a table as if it were about to drink, would cost us. Its delicacy – the pleated wings, the pale yellow of the beak, its whiteness, which, if it were an illustration in a book, would have made it merge into the page – made it look like something from the Twenties. It would need to be placed always at the edge of something, like a basin in a bathroom, because its head and neck were stooped at such an angle that they must necessarily inhabit empty space. We waited for a vast figure. Four euros, came the reply. We decided to buy it. It was wrapped in a polythene bag for travel.
That brief encounter with bric-à-brac dislocated me. Recounting the experience of walking in the Parisian arcades, Walter Benjamin said, famously, that some time in the late nineteenth century Paris had become a great interior; the introduction of gas-lit lamps had, in a sense, removed the sky over the city, turning it into a ceiling, and to stroll as flâneur or dandy through the arcades was in a way to roam about in your own room. In Nollendorfstrasse, buying the swan, hovering over the furniture, I felt something of that confusion, and felt, too, that my being there was charged with significance. It was as if I were in someone’s house, but the house had been made invisible. On Nollendorfstrasse itself, buildings had been razed in the bombing, then swiftly replaced in post-war reconstruction by what Reini called ‘prefabricated’ houses. These were juxtaposed with the buildings that had survived, with their balconies, their drawing rooms with chandeliers.
The swan might have belonged to one of those houses. In my mind, the history of the bombing had set it free. Certainly, the bombing must have once added to the flâneur’s experience of urban rambling, with its interchangeability of inside and outside, a dimension Benjamin couldn’t have imagined. This ambiguous extra dimension informs this sentence, about London after the war, from Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means: ‘Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination …’ This self-aware aestheticization, with its comedy of absences and its juxtapositions of castles and wallpaper, takes me back to Benjamin’s view of bourgeois Paris. The meandering sentence might not know it, but it is a child of that vision.
That sentence, which I’d read several years ago, prepared me for the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the Kurfurstendamm. The latter is a long avenue of shops, cafes, and restaurants, Berlin’s Champs-Élysées, albeit on a smaller scale; the church, built at the end of the nineteenth century in memory of Wilhelm II, was bombed in the war. The main structure has been largely left as it was; the sudden impact of devastation, the bruises wrought by a single moment, are permanently on display. It was added to later, and its interior is open to tourists; before it, like a futuristic offspring, is a new bell-tower, modernist in conception, a tall hexagon. The contiguity between the two buildings is astonishing and provocative. The old church, perhaps affectionately, is called the ‘rotten tooth’; it looked to me uncannily like Brueghel’s picture of the Tower of Babel, with its burst centre, except that it, unlike the Tower, overwhelmingly represents silence.
From here, Reini drove us to the Reichstag, which, during the era of the two Berlins, had been disowned by both sides, partly because it stood on the border that separated them; it was now revived as a conference centre and a tourist attraction. We stared at it and walked across the now-impalpable dividing line; there was no wall here; it was at this point that the border most approximated the phrase with which Isherwood so movingly evoked it in his account of a post-war visit: the ‘shadow line’.
I have never encountered the past as I did when I was in Berlin. It was not only I who saw the ghost; my wife did too. ‘It’s amazing,’ she said. If only one of us had seen it, we could say that the person in question had imagined it; but both of us couldn’t have had the same dream. Every city gives you a past which is, of course, a construct. But, here, the construct is curious. You are meant to confront the past everywhere, but are kept from what is surely the universal human instinct toward it – to mourn it; to commemorate it. Instead, you are dislocated by it in a series of encounters.
We crossed the ‘shadow line’ in Reini’s blue car as the sun began to go down; he took us into the former East Berlin and showed us rows of prefabricated houses, and old official buildings the government still didn’t know what to with; it is as though they are still awaiting repatriation. ‘Don’t quote me,’ said Reini, ‘but some of the profit-making companies of the East were bought over and discontinued by companies from the West to weed out competition.’ From there to checkpoint Charlie, the Wall inscribed with artists’ graffiti, the avenue of resplendent and still-threatening ‘Stalinist’ architecture, the Muscovite buildings looking like a great army without a general.
Can one see a city in a day? Can one absorb it? Certainly, in great Modernist texts – Ulysses, Mrs Dalloway, Under the Volcano – a day is all that is given; and, in that day, a break is made in Benjamin’s ‘empty, homogeneous time of history’. Benjamin conceived of that break as a ‘now’: ‘Jetztzeit’; a revolutionary, but also a mystical, moment in the present. The following is from his eighteenth thesis on the ‘philosophy of history’:
‘In relation to the history of organic life on earth,’ writes a modern biologist, ‘the paltry fifty millennia of homo sapiens constitute something like two seconds at the close of a twenty-four-hour day. On this scale, the history of civilized mankind would fill one-fifth of the last second of the last hour.’ The present, which … comprises the entire history of mankind in an enormous abridgement, coincides exactly with the stature which the history of mankind has in the universe.
This is a bit like the Hindu notion of human history as a blink in the eye of a yuga; it is also a fair definition of the day in a Modernist classic. A day is at once infinitesimal and endless.
Magdeburg is in what was called vaguely, until fourteen years ago, ‘East Germany’. It is well known for being an important pre-war industrial town; for being thoroughly bombed during the war; for a very old cathedral; and for Otto von Guericke, after whom the university is named. This man was a scientist who is renowned for an experiment: he joined two empty hemispheres together and filled them with a vacuum. Then, in an odd tug-of-war, he had teams of horses try to pull them apart. They failed.
As we stepped out of the railway station into the strong light of six o’clock in the evening, Reini made us turn around and look at the building. It was the most magnificent structure in the area, something that might have been erected at the end of the nineteenth century; one could imagine it as a great terminus for horse-drawn carriages. From it to our hotel was a mere two minutes’ walk. The hotel resembled an American motel, and was just the place for the conference visitor: well-equipped, efficient, unlovely, and turn of the century (the twentieth, not the nineteenth). We washed our faces and combed our hair in a brightly-lit bathroom before emerging for our walk with Reini.
Our walks give me the illusion of knowing Reini better than I do. His beard, his granny glasses, his long hair, coming down to well below his collar, suggest – and I confirmed this from a black and white picture in his kitchen – that, although he’s probably modulated his politics, he’s largely left the incarnation he found himself in during the student radicalism of the late Sixties, when he was at Berlin’s Free University, untouched.
Naturally, he’s put on weight. No sign of his residual left-wing propensities is to be found in his beautiful Berlin flat. In the course of conversation, a professed enthusiasm for Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams betrays not so much an allegiance to a programme as a private romanticism. He lived for years in China; he has been to India; among the pictures in his kitchen is a postcard that shows a place I believed I’d seen before – was it Rome? Only after repeated glances at the brown stone buildings, the lovely urban arc of traffic around an ancient European statue, did I recognize the Flora Fountain in Bombay, which I used to pass every day on my way to school.
In the black and white photo, Reini is smoking a cigarette. Like radicalism, cigarette smoking made an exit from bourgeois European society in the Eighties. The new religion is life; not just the pursuit of happiness, but of health. In this regard, Reini’s unfashionable paunch – I could see, from old photographs, that he’s had it for a while – proclaims, more than any political opinion, his anomalousness. I don’t know what his relationship to the contemporary world is, but I suspect it isn’t an entirely normal one; I suspect that, in spite of his joviality, his apparent satisfaction with his routine of work and leisure, he is secretly bemused by the fallout of the Cold War.
I think that he belonged to a particular sub-group in that generation of Europeans that was defined by the Cold War in profound and contradictory ways; that, while he’d never have given up the pleasures and freedoms of capitalist society, or doubted the veracity of democracy, or the futility of the division of Europe into East or West, the flame of some pure, Marxist nostalgia would have been fed, without his being even fully conscious of it, by the existence of the Soviet Union that otherwise, in the daylight of reason, so appalled him. The fall of the Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union must have left him off-kilter; ever so slightly, in comparison with his counterparts in the East, but off-kilter nevertheless.
That’s why, maybe, he likes taking visitors for these walks; why he’s such a good guide. I wouldn’t mind him as a companion in purgatory. I asked him if he ever found it a nuisance showing people around. No, he enjoyed seeing familiar things through others’ eyes. I think the walks, punctuated by jokes and gestures of the hand, are a sort of circling round history, a pattern of confirmation and distancing. Because they are an improvised, rather than an actual, form of mapping, they must accrue, rather than lose, significance with repetition.
The walk that sunlit evening too traced a sort of circle. We started from the hotel, went past the station, turned right at Pizza Hut, passed a group of academics who’d come here for the conference on post-colonial literatures, walked down an immense road with tramlines in the middle, then right, into a long featureless avenue that led us to the cathedral – dark, huge, one of Europe’s oldest. From there we turned back, past another old and peculiar building, the General Post Office, and, finally, made our way through a path that, by some sleight of hand, returned us to our post-modern hotel.
By our second evening, our last, my wife and I had become well-acquainted with this arc. Nowadays, I find it takes me only a day or two to form an emotional link with a place I’m passing through. It’s as if I’ve entered yet another suburb of an indefinite but persistent metropolis I’ll never escape. This suburb is different from the one I was last in, but not wholly strange. I begin to find my way in it; at first, like a blind man; then, with a mixture of circumspection and trepidation, like someone who’s never strayed from the route to a particular destination over many years, but who has never found that route boring. All this happens in approximately a day. When I was a child, I recall, I went to Athens, but never felt like seeing the Parthenon. Now, I find that a city like Magdeburg compels me to discover it.
My reading, on the second day, was at 7 p.m.; we had the rest of the day to ourselves. We visited a pharmacy; chanced upon an open market in a town square; photographed the statue of a man on horseback; and ran into an Indian selling knick-knacks. He told me he’d been a taxi driver in Punjab; he had married a German tourist and come here eleven years ago. They were now divorced; he’d stayed on. My discovery of this man, my compatriot, was, to me, astonishing, for I’d begun to imagine I was the only Indian man in Magdeburg. These days, no one stares at you in the West; eye-contact is a potential precursor to assault; when it occurs, it’s nearly always domesticated by a nod and a smile. In Magdeburg, though, my family and I were stared at intently.
Five minutes before the encounter with the Indian vendor, we were resting on a bench before a fountain; a tramp with a can of lager in one hand sat on the neighbouring bench. ‘Indien?’ he said suddenly. Disarmed, I nodded. He then asked me a series of questions in German. ‘No Deutsch, no Deutsch,’ I replied. He embarked upon a hoarse, rapid monologue. Finally, he raised his arm in the old Nazi salute. What had this man done and thought, I wondered, during those forty-odd years of communism?
Reini tells me that most East Germans, in a fit of collective amnesia, forgot the legacy of socialism overnight. Although an Indian friend tells me that she found an older generation in Dresden still insisting on speaking Russian as a second language, the second language in question now is not Russian, but English; and, as the Head of the English Department shrugged and sighed, ‘These Easterners know no English.’
It seems a knowledge of English, or the lack of it, has become a metaphor, in certain circles in Germany, for a figurative barrier, a silence that keeps, like Isherwood’s ‘shadow line’, one side from the other. Most of the teachers at Magdeburg’s English department are, indeed, ‘Westerners’, and, thus, commuters. Just as Reini’s life was an intersection in my journey, my journey must have been an intersection in the constant travelling of which his life is composed, the weekly to-ing and fro-ing on the autobahn between West Berlin and what he once laughingly called, in a moment of levity, ‘darkest Europe’.
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 16 Autumn 2004