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Winter 2007

On Berlin

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James Lasdun

The first half of my novel Seven Lies is set in East Berlin. I wrote a draft of these chapters back in the early Nineties, before abandoning the project for a decade. I hadn't been to Berlin or done any serious research on the subject. For me the place was primarily interesting as a mythical entity: the setting for a very particular combination of atmospheres and behaviors that I wanted to explore in fiction.

I had grown up in London during the Seventies—a grey place, shot with odd sparks of color from the bohemian/ socialist circles my parents frequented (as a young man, my father had briefly been a Communist). From eight to thirteen I went to a boarding school in Surrey—the school Auden had attended forty years earlier, of which he had written: "the whole of our moral life was based on fear, on fear of the community, not to mention the temptation it offered to the natural informer...," remarks that were still largely applicable in my time.

I wasn't very political and didn't go to spy movies, but by some sort of osmosis I had absorbed the idea, by my late teens, that although we were part of the capitalist world, it was the Eastern Bloc countries, rather than America, that expressed the underlying essence of England (or my England): austerity, repression, self-sacrifice with a touch of self-righteousness. East Germany in particular, with its reputation as a dreary but possibly genuine socialist state in which the people, or at least the intelligentsia, were willing participants, seemed to me a fantastical, concentrated version of England: colder, poorer, with a psychotic brand of English idealism that gave it an appealingly sinister glamour.

These were the qualities I wanted for the background of my protagonist, a character who grows up yearning for the joyous life that he believes to be flourishing outside the confines of his own immured existence. I told myself (rather cavalierly) that without much exaggeration I could easily transpose the textures and atmospheres of my childhood from London and Surrey to East Berlin. Later, when I had the narrative elements in place, I could get whatever historic and geographical facts I might require for purposes of verisimilitude, but to begin with all I would need to do was lie back and think of England. And that, pretty much, was how I wrote that first draft.

I visited the city, by chance, in 2000. A film I had co-written was premiering at the Berlin Film Festival and I was invited along for the junket. The festival had built a new complex in the wasteground of Potsdamer Platz, the old no-man's-land between East and West. My hotel was nearby, a futuristic establishment of the kind that makes you feel like Rip Van Winkle: constantly bewildered by new kinds of shower controls, light switches, TV systems, elevator doors... I wondered if I had perhaps left it too late to do any on-site research for the old East Berlin setting of my novel (still in its long dormancy), whether the place had already been transformed beyond recognition.

One wet afternoon I took a taxi ride around the city. We drove down Karl Marx Allee, one of the main spines of the eastern section. As the rain-blurred parallels of its blocks reeled past us—mile after mile of seedily grandiose buildings with vistas of crumbling apartment complexes marching to the far horizon down every side street—I realized I had no need to worry. This was like looking down the wrong end of a telescope, or traveling backward in time. It was the Yellow Brick Road in reverse: things turning from color to black-and-white (or sepia-and-grey). And the curious thing was that in its own way it felt just as magical, the drabness so otherworldly in its epic scale and intensity that it was after all just as strange and beguiling as the gleaming hyper-modernity beginning to usurp it.

We drove on into the area around Lichtenberg Strasse, where an even more desolate monumentality prevailed. In the midst of this we arrived at the old Stasi headquarters, which my driver told me were open to the public. I went in and looked at the exhibits—pen microphones, shoe-transmitters, a little eavesdropping car, various other bits of low-grade James Bond spy gear connected to the "Mitarbeiter" informer system in which roughly half the population had recently been engaged. As I wandered around I felt as if I were once again tasting the atmosphere of my boarding school-the same almost touching mixture of shoddiness, wickedness, and sheer lunacy...

I resumed the project a couple of years later (the final spur was the spectacularly rapid post-9/11 transformation of my own idealized America into just another fear-based, self-serving state—an irresistible irony). At this point I did read a large number of books about the city and these of course provided me with all sorts of useful details, particularly about the 1980s Prenzlauer Berg avant-garde poetry scene, a hotbed of Stasi informers whose mixture of political and aesthetic posturing (their credo was remarkably like that of America's L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets) made their world a natural staging post in the downward moral trajectory of my hero. But it remained the case that writing about Berlin was, as much as anything else, a way of writing about the psychological atmosphere of 1970s England "by other means." I should probably be embarrassed to admit to this brazen cultural misappropriation, but such is the dubious alchemy of fiction. To quote Auden again: "The best reason I have for opposing Fascism is that at school I lived in a Fascist state."

James Lasdun was born in London and now lives in the States. He has written several books of poetry and fiction; the latest is his novel Seven Lies.

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