lundi 23 mars 2009

Germany - 25 February 2008

The protagonist of Berlin Traffic flees Paris to escape the old-fashioned city with its symbolist cameos and enamels, the corpses in its catacombs, the capital’s eerie ghosts. In Germany, what does he find? An activist dancer, some work as a gigolo, and finally a role in an adaptation of Solaris. Still old things, then, only somewhat less old.

Berlin should make us suspicious. The city is too cool to be straight. Previously, it was a battle ground; we now see its struggles recycled as kitsch. I’ve noticed a very dangerous Berlin kitch that dominates today’s European culture under a yodelling air and wir wollen alle wider kinder sein. One doesn’t even need to work, here – life is cheap, one can always squat. In short, there’s an ethic of easy recycling, reaction to the more noble art of keeping things in shape. Out of which comes, no doubt, the anguish that Julien brings very clearly to the scene: Berlin, the city where old age is terrifying; for Berlin caters only to a youthful ethic, a sort of laziness marked by gluttony and lust.

Now, when young we’re expected to produce something beyond our own needs, for we must also consider the elders and the children. But in Berlin the ethic is just-enough-for-yourself. “I live in a great apartment,” said Martin – “it’s heated by coal.” The coal needs to be carried, then – fine for the young, but later?

I will resist the temptation of the Berlin model. I will not become an honorary citizen of Prenzlauerberg, where I drank beer as a nineteen-year-old.

What is the genre of this novel? Somewhere between pornography and noir. An erotic spy novel. Berlin, city of spies – a legacy of the cold war, no doubt. The genre entails secrecy, but also false identity, fake name, gadgets, money; legitimate things become blurred. Theft itself is in a dance of death with the law.

The protagonist of Berlin Traffic moves from Paris – city of sterile poetry in a rigid and decaying style – to Berlin, the city of the spy thriller. It’s an attempt to reconcile the cheeky pop of Les Halles or Belleville with the rarified salons of the Left Bank, and recycle all of it in a cosmopolitan crime novel, with erotic salons and the traffic of stolen artworks. Excellent – after all these years we still haven’t finished with kitsch. As for espionage, how boring! The Pagny sur Moselle affair was already a spy story. Between France and Germany could we not find something beyond secret intelligence?

I also notice that, once in Berlin, the character finds a new form of seriousness. Because Germany is a peasant country, even in Berlin; because we believe in Mother Nature, here; because in Germany we can enact a neo-Greek melancholia. (Crista Wolf is an excellent example – for all her talent, I could never get beyond the first chapter of Cassandra).

There is something to consider in this fascination for antiquity and the displaced Mediterranean, that forms one of the motives of literary history in France as well as Germany, from Racine’s Iphigenia to that of Goethe, passing via Du Bellay's Roman Antiquities and Goethe's Roman Elegies. Something of the kitsch of Berlin, of Paris and of Julien’s book resides in these museums of the northern plains full of Greek fragments and Egyptian gods, thoroughly nationalised, source of a richness “immemorial.” I remember a retired teacher in Alsace speaking with emotion of the “Island of Museums,” in Berlin, before her smorgasbord of stoneware from Soufflenheim. It’s another form of recycling or recuperation that is at stake, here. Recycling somebody else’s past, which we take for our own. Another kind of theft. Now, the Biblical commandment tells us: “thou shalt not steal.”

Pondering these words, I might almost inscribe the commandment as the motto of my landed and nautical notebooks: “thou shalt not steal.”

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