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There are certain cities that seem to exert their own gravitational pull. Sometimes it’s due to their size; other times, the sheer weight of history gathered behind them. Berlin is certainly one of the latter. The German capital is a dark star at the heart of Europe that continues to draw more artists, leaders and innovators to its streets than cities twice its size. In many ways the history of Berlin is the history of Europe. It’s little wonder that so many have found it so irresistible.
Rory MacLean’s latest book is a significant departure from the travelogues with which he made his reputation. In some ways travel still sits at its core – MacLean, after all, is Canadian by birth – but there is very little travelling involved. Not in the spatial sense. What he attempts in Berlin: Imagine a City is instead, in many ways, a kind of time travel. Collected between its covers are a series of short biographies of the artists and personalities who have shaped Berlin across the centuries. Opening with proto-rebel Konrad von Colln – a 15th century poet who defied both the Mastersingers Guild and his patron – and reaching all the way to Berlin’s reunified present, the collection gives a patchwork impression of a city forever in flux.
It can be read as a simple compendium of biographies, although to do so is to miss some of MacLean’s subtleties. There is plenty of pleasure to be had by dipping into it almost at random, discovering anecdotes about Marlene Dietrich and Christopher Isherwood, or the infectious insanity of Albert Speer and Joseph Goebbels. There are lesser known characters from the city’s past too, and each chapter is a miniature voyage of discovery that can be enjoyed in its own right. Some condense an entire life into twenty pages; others focus on one incident. The chapter on John F. Kennedy’s visit in 1963 takes the form of an imaginary film script.
It’s as a whole, however, that this unconventional portrait of a city comes to life. If each individual chapter opens a door onto an episode from its history, then the cumulative effect is to transform these short personal biographies into one larger biography of Berlin itself. MacLean does his best to identify lasting characteristics in the earlier historical figures, but it’s during and after the World Wars that the city we know is fully mapped out. In the rise and fall of Nazi Germany – and in the schizophrenic city that came in its wake – he finds his most intriguing material, a study of guilt, and loss, and acceptance, and reconciliation. As he writes in his Epilogue:
As I came to know the city, I began to understand that, rather than lacking in empathy, Berlin was in trauma. Its collective memory was so wracked by historical suffering, so injured by emotional history, that Berliners – like Germans as a whole – had developed rules as defences.
MacLean’s approach won’t appeal to everyone. Note that the book’s subtitle prompts us to ‘Imagine a City’; not define it. There is much here that’s fictional, inserted between the pages of history like illustrations in a medieval text. What MacLean cannot dig up through research alone, he invents. Historians will most likely be appalled by the liberties he takes, trying to think his way inside the heads of his subjects, creating scenarios and conversations that never occurred in the real world. Even some of the later chapters, dealing with the last century, make similar leaps of the imagination in places. If you’re searching for documentable fact, this is not the place to look.
But his writing has always played with the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction, and if you’re prepared to embrace it, this quickly becomes one of Berlin’s strengths. This is more than simply a collection of potted biographies, a cyclopedia of the German capital’s largest personalities. It’s also an attempt to map out the city in four dimensions, to explore the imagery, and the concepts, and the characteristics that make Berlin such a magnet for artists and visionaries.
Does it succeed? Almost. The strongest chapters are often those where MacLean had a personal connection with his subjects – a chance encounter with Marlene Dietrich, his time spent working with David Bowie in the Seventies – which suggests that sometimes he doesn’t delve quite deep enough into his imagination. Perhaps he might have gone further if he had imagined more, and relied on the history books a little less. The depiction of Berlin as an entity in its own right is intriguing; but even more intriguing is the form he has chosen to explore it in. Sitting at the crossroads between historical research and fictional leaps of the imagination, Berlin: Imagine a City is a bold experiment in finding new ways to understand beyond the simple facts and figures, to get to the heart of Europe’s endlessly fascinating dark star. As a work of history it is flawed; as a work of the imagination, it is to be applauded – and savoured.
Berlin: Imagine a City was published in February 2014. Buy it from Foyles.