There’s no story quite like that which has played out on a sandy strip of swamp land next to the murky river Spree. Accordingly Berlin, in it’s myriad forms, has inspired a vast volume of literature. Here is a smattering of what’s on offer. Six of the best based in or on the world’s most fascinating city. 

 

Berlin: Imagine a City – Rory Maclean

With this ambitious work MacLean weaves a series of story lines, spanning from the middle ages to the twenty first century, to create a captivating and vivid biography of Berlin. The twenty four narrative threads stem from an eclectic cast: soldiers, artists, prostitutes and kings all have their say; with the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Joseph Goebbels and David Bowie making an appearance. Often straying from historical accuracy, this is not an academic study of Berlin’s history. Rather, MacLean uses poetic license and prose to expose the fears, ambitions and desires of the myriad characters who have somehow played a part, for better or worse, in Berlin’s tumultuous history. 

“[Berlin] resonates with the echo of lives lived, dreams realised and evils executed with shocking intensity. No other city has repeatedly been so powerful, and fallen so low; few other cities have been so shaped and defined by individual imaginations.”

Goodbye to Berlin – Christopher Isherwood

A semi-autobiographical novel set in Berlin during the early 1930’s, British author Isherwood’s shrewd observations offer a glimpse into the desperate hedonism which defined the city during the death throes of the Weimar Republic. Contemporary author George Orwell described it as “brilliant sketches of a society in decay”. The novel which was published in 1939 is wrought with subtle foreboding. As the novel progresses, one is faced with the increasing sense that the eccentric  cast of characters are like passengers on a train, blissfully (or perhaps wilfully) ignorant of the fact they are careening towards a gaping abyss.

“The Nazis may write like schoolboys, but they’re capable of anything. That’s just why they’re so dangerous. People laugh at them, right up to the last moment…”

 

Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada

Based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hempel, Fallada’s seminal work depicts one couple’s stoic resistance to the Nazi regime. Published in 1947, the pace and tone employed expertly portray the tense fear and suspicion which permeated society in Hitler’s Berlin. Having lived through the third Reich himself, Fallada offers the reader a fantastic insight into life in the Nazi capital during World War Two. The reader is confronted with the overwhelming sense of how helpless the brave minority who chose to resist the regime must have felt in the face of such a ruthlessly effective system of surveillance and oppression.

“At that instant she grasped that this very first sentence was Otto’s absolute and irrevocable declaration of war, and also what that meant: war between, on the one side, the two of them, poor, small, insignificant workers who could be extinguished for just a word or two, and on the other, the Führer, the Party, the whole apparatus in all its power and glory, with three-fourths or even four-fifths of the German people behind it. And the two of them in this little room in Jablonski Strasse”

 

Berlin Blues (Herr Lehmann) – Sven Regener

Set in west Berlin in 1989, this iconic novel is centred on the universe of Frank Lehmann, a bar tender and perennial coaster. Up until the point we make Herr Lehmann’s acquaintance, he has been content with a simple existence occupying either side of a bar and residing alone in a “one and a half room” apartment in the area of Kreuzberg known as SO36. Through a series of mishaps, unexpected events and encounters, culminating in the fall of the Berlin wall, his simple universe is turned upside down as drastically as an up-ended glass of Schnapps. The novel, which has since received two prequels and been turned into a film, is a poignant, witty, and at times absurd portrayal of life in marooned West Berlin.

“After all, when you drink schnapps you only have yourself to blame.” (Translated from German.)

Stasiland – Anne Funder

On reading this novel, one might be forgiven for believing that it is a work of fiction. Not for the story telling, which is masterful, but because what is revealed within the pages seems too horrific to be true. Told through personal stories of those who lived in the oppressive shadow of the Berlin wall, Stasiland portrays in harrowing detail the depths which the East German secret Police plumbed to suppress resistance. The grim subject matter was gathered through interviews Funder herself conducted in the 1990’s, in which she met not only the oppressed but also Stasi officials and informants. Infused with Funder’s sharp wit and a flowing style Stasiland is a gripping account of cold war Berlin. 

“For anyone to understand a regime like the GDR, the stories of ordinary people must be told. Not just the activists or the famous writers. You have to look at how normal people manage with such things in their pasts.”

 

Book of Clouds – Chloe Aridjis

The award winning debut novel from Aridjis follows Tatiana, a young Mexican woman trying to find her place in Berlin at the beginning of the 21st century. The protagonist’s almost child like innocence and social awkwardness, interspersed with episodes of insomnia and depression provide moments of dreamy surrealism. Yet the novel is grounded with cutting perception of the city and it’s inhabitants. Berlin, which plays a major role in the novel, appears gruff, half-finished and cold, completely unsympathetic to Tatiana’s tribulations. The result is a captivating portrait of a woman struggling to find herself in a city which seems to be doing the same.

“I couldn’t help sensing that this apartment possessed a memory of everything the building had ever witnessed, every voice and step and desire of it’s former inhabitants, stored up in one vast archive. The noises I heard at night were probably vestigial sounds from decades past, footfalls made by shoes never reclaimed.”