Berlin: Imagine a City & Stasiland

Welcome to Book Club. Followers of this blog will have noticed a theme developing over the past few posts, and to be honest if you find historical dereliction a worthwhile subject for photography you will sooner or later come across a crumbling empire. Whether it’s the Soviet iron curtain or the Nazis’ quest for total war domination, few cities have been shaped by the progress of human suffering more than Berlin. Maybe that goes some way to explaining this recent infatuation, or maybe it’s the realisation that this may be the last chance to grasp some meaning from my own past before I take the inevitable turning at the intersection of memory and credibility. What I do know is that a good book makes any journey bearable, and the two I’m about to introduce are some of the finest.

“The strange alchemy of Berlin’s air and soil, its dark melancholy and severe winters, its anger and regret, has created a people who are often locked away in their inner selves. In such a place what makes life worth living? Love? Spring Sunshine? Diversity? Ideas? Or beauty? With beauty, one can find the point of being alive. Beauty can stir and engulf us. It honours those glad, good things that are larger and more interesting than us, yet are forever part of us.”

Berlin: Imagine a City by Rory MacLean
Cover shot stolen from the internet, probably Amazon

In Berlin: Imagine a City MacLean enters the lives of a succession of historical characters whose actions and experiences, though fascinating in their own right, connect to form a fresh perspective on this remarkable city. From the 15th century Prussia all the way up to post-unification Germany, MacLean’s style is akin to a historical novel, drawing on well-researched facts where available and taking just enough license where necessary. Although each chapter introduces a fresh character ample reference is made to previous protagonists which are invariably connected through the suburbs, activities and organisations which have shaped Berlin, and ultimately Germany.

And yet this isn’t a heavy book. MacLean’s energetic rendering is largely sympathetic to the individuals being portrayed, which coupled with liberal use of the present tense draws the reader into history in the same way one is drawn into any good story. It’s unlikely that each of the chosen characters will appeal equally to all readers, but the selection is a fine one which entertains and educates in equal measure. An innovative approach which is to be recommended.

“What surprises me about living here is that, no matter how much is taken out, this linoleum palace continues to contain all the necessities for life, at the same time as it refuses to admit a single thing, either accidentally or arranged, of beauty or joy. In this, I think, it is much like East Germany itself.”

Stasiland by Anna Funder
Cover shot stolen from the internet, probably Amazon

Stasiland is a blend of one person’s experience with and research of East Germany’s secret police: The STASI. Funder relates her own exposure to Berlin and interactions with it’s citizens in a first-person perspective that is as fascinating as it is disarming. Characters are brought to life by her frank style and attention to detail, neither of which distract from the at times unbelievable narrative forming the backbone of this gritty documentary.

Funder’s sharp observations are at times turned inwards as she lives among citizens of East Berlin, sharing their secret, irrepressible optimism and universal hatred for the regime, yet able to luxuriate in a distance which many of her subjects would never know. The aspect of this book which I personally liked above all else is that the reader has a sense of total immersion in a state controlled by a secret police whose single goal was to know everything about everybody. The author’s relationship – no, friendship – with her subjects plays an important role in conveying their story in a way that you, a citizen of the fee world will understand and appreciate. To call this book a masterpiece would be to cheapen it with a threadbare superlative. Go read.