Bohemia is a good place to grow as a writer, but is it a good place to live one’s whole life?
In August 2009, in the Prenzlauer Berg district of the former East Berlin, 150 people squeezed into Saint Georges New & Used English Bookshop to attend a literary reading in English. Prenzlauer Berg is often described as a bohemian neighbourhood. Yet to earn this designation a district has to be more than a popular international rendezvous point: its collision of cultures must create art. Paris in the 1920s remains a beacon because readers in different countries recall André Breton and the Surrealists, the Latin Americans who interacted with them—the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, the Peruvian poet César Vallejo, the Nobel Prize- winning Guatemalan novelist Miguel Ángel Asturias—and, of course, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. In today’s world of instantaneous communication, bohemias risk becoming dangerously self-conscious, choking off their creativity before they can produce an enduring corpus of literature.
The Prenzlauer Berg writer Ralph Martin, author of Ein Amerikaner in Berlin: Wie ein New Yorker lernt, die Deutschen zu Lieben (An American in Berlin: How a New Yorker Learned to Love the Germans), introduced his reading at Saint Georges Bookshop by comparing Berlin favourably with another contemporary bohemia: Buenos Aires. Martin, who left New York in 2003 out of love for his German girlfriend, went on to evoke the bohemian New York of the 1940s to 1970s, in which artists such as Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning flourished. Yet, he maintained, New York at its peak had been “incredibly dangerous” and now the city had become a soulless, overpriced financial centre; Berlin, on the other hand, was both safe and exciting.
The passages Martin read about his adaptation to the city were witty and affecting. His book reflected the contradictions of Prenzlauer Berg’s bohemia: written in English, it had been published in a German translation; about two-thirds of the audience at Saint Georges Bookshop sounded anglophone, yet they bought the German edition of Martin’s book. No English edition was planned. Foreign writers in Paris, from Joyce to Asturias, may have interacted with the French, but they published in their native languages. Berlin’s bohemia, by contrast, is driven less by fleeting expatriation than by immigration. The bard of Prenzlauer Berg, and one of the most popular writers in Germany, is Wladimir Kaminer, a Russian immigrant who writes in German. Kaminer was born in Moscow in 1967 and settled in East Berlin in 1990. The convener of a trendy reading series, Kaminer is also a television host. Ich bin kein Berliner (I’m no Berliner) (2007) approaches the ironies of life in Prenzlauer Berg in humorous sketches that parody a travel guide. The title mocks that precious Cold War moment when U.S. President John F. Kennedy came to West Berlin to cement his identification with this beleaguered outpost of the Free World. Intending to say “Ich bin Berliner” (I am a Berliner), Kennedy roared, “Ich bin ein Berliner!” which means “I am a doughnut!” This anxiety about misspeaking oneself in the treacherous German language, of a self-deprecating view from the ground, is central to Kaminer’s humour. Yet Ich bin kein Berliner feels overly folksy, softened by Kaminer’s duty of being “one of Germany’s best-loved writers.” His sketches had a sharper edge when he was poorer and less established. An earlier collection, Schönhauser Allee (2001), evokes post-1990 Eastern European immigrants to Prenzlauer Berg with humour, poignancy and bite.
Schönhauser Allee runs along the western edge of Prenzlauer Berg and meets Kastanienallee, the core of the district’s café scene, in a V beneath the elevated Eberswalder Strasse U-Bahn station. Maxim Biller, born into a Jewish family in Prague in 1960 and a resident of Germany since 1970, has practically invented Kastanienallee as a literary territory. Some of the stories in Liebe heute (Love Today) (2007) revolve around Czech or Jewish themes; others describe romantic encounters in Kastanienallee cafés. The pivotal moment in a Biller story tends to occur when the narrator invites a young woman back to his apartment. Yet, if the plot becomes repetitive, these passing encounters are rendered with a restraint that evokes real feeling. Biller is a contentious figure. He has condemned Western liberals for romanticizing conditions in Communist East Germany, and he has accused the Israelis of not translating his books into Hebrew because, he claims, they don’t want to admit that Jewish life in Berlin is thriving again.
The East German writer Chaim Noll, who emigrated to Israel after 1989 , agrees with Biller: he recently observed that today it is once again possible to live a ganz normal (completely normal) Jewish life in Germany. This theme hovers over the best- known novel in English to have emerged from Prenzlauer Berg, Book of Clouds, by Chloe Aridjis, the Harvard- and Oxford-educated daughter of the Mexican novelist and diplomat Homero Aridjis. The first-person narrator is a young Jewish Mexican woman living a life of grinding solitude amid the fervour of Prenzlauer Berg. Familiar images of Berlin abound: both Adolf Hitler and the Berlin Wall appear in the first two pages. In contrast to other immigrant protagonists, Aridjis’s diffident Tatiana comes to Berlin to escape, rather than join, a community. Book of Clouds is involving and meticulously crafted, yet the past almost stifles the narrator’s present.
Judith Hermann, born in West Berlin in 1970 and now living in Prenzlauer Berg, typifies a different migration: that of West Germans who, by moving to the district, have made Prenzlauer Berg one of the rare locales where East and West Germans mingle. Hermann is an impressive short-story writer. In their open- endedness and use of suggestion, her impeccably constructed stories owe a debt to American models. Her characters are occupied by art, affairs and exotic vacations. Hermann’s tone has changed little since her striking first collection, Sommerhaus, später (Summer house, later) (1998 ), a fact that raises a question relevant to all of these writers. Bohemia is a good place to grow as a writer, but is it a good place to write about, or to live one’s whole life? An economically stagnant city cushioned by a generous welfare state can also be a city without driving themes or compelling dilemmas. With the exception of James Joyce, most of the foreign bohemians of the 1920s wrote their best books after leaving Paris. The question that Prenzlauer Berg’s new literature has yet to answer is whether an immigrant culture can generate the same enduring creative intensity as a place of temporary expatriation.