"Christopher felt like he was running away from ugliness, from Berlin’s hardness. Then he gazed at Aisha, driving with one hand in her lap, shades blanking her eyes, and felt that he was running away with Berlin. It was right there beside him, embodied, inescapable. He broke into a sweat. It was inside him, an infection. Was that how love felt?"
Aisha Holz, Berliner, is of the city she calls home. It is a city scarred by history; a city of emotional contradictions; a city of odious yet compelling spectacle. A graduate student researching disgust in West Berlin, Aisha cannot explain the culture of callousness around her without embracing it. When an abusive supervisor hands her off to a visiting professor from England, she challenges his tastes, his morals, his ego and his nerve, confronting him with the allure of ugliness. In Berlinerisch, the city is alive. Christopher, Aisha and those around them are driven to act by the city itself. Berlin speaks in the first person, betraying a character both wizened and hardened, full of distaste at human affairs and the contingencies of politics. It declares itself misanthropic, made grotesque by a long past, and now directs ugliness in the everyday life of those people it calls subjects. Wherever Berlin points, the scene is an enigmatic contradiction: the disgusting sight that compels attention. It reflects the darkly erotic pull of cruel acts of love.
Berlinerisch is literary fiction. It interweaves the voice of Berlin into the unfolding of the lives of English historian Christopher Hunter, his girlfriend Joanne, and Berliner graduate student Aisha Holz. Set after the end of the ‘end of history’, it offers a foretaste in Aisha of the cynicism of the social-media age – of the meaningless cold manipulation of Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts – but before the iphone existed, when Facebook was fresh out of college, and when Twitter was barely off the ground. In its foregrounding of the importance of place, of a cityscape that is involved in the narrative action of the novel, it is reminiscent of Peter Carey’s 30 Days in Sydney. Berlin describes itself in irascible tones, betraying a long, bloody and divided past. If it is tortured, so too are its people. In its mixing up of tenses in order to frame the different voices and narrative sequencing of the novel, Berlinerisch calls to mind Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. But in atmosphere the book is a contemporary companion to Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. It captures the bleakness and cruelty of Berlin in ways redolent of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin or Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, and the human range of Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum. Set in the recent historical past, between the summer of 2006 and the beginning of 2007, between the World Cup and Cyclone Kyrill, a wind storm that devastated all of Germany, Berlinerisch celebrates the cynical misanthropy of a city that has seen it all before.