Babylon Berlin, Miss Marple, and The Bridge of Spies

We spent a week in Berlin at the end of January. It was freezy and snowy and altogether delightful, not least because of the copious amounts of food we consumed, from Bratwurst to Vietnamese dumplings to stacks of lovely cake (pics below). And as ever, the city was also a Krimi paradise, with its specialist crime bookshops and plentiful crime fiction events.

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Kino Babylon in Mitte

Author Volker Kutscher was in town to give a reading from Lunapark, the sixth novel in his ‘Gereon Rath’ historical crime fiction series, which is set in Weimar and National Socialist Berlin. It took place in a wonderful old cinema called Kino Babylon, which opened in 1929 – the same year the series starts. In another nice twist, Babylon Berlin is the title of the first ‘Rath’ novel translated into English – by Niall Sellar for Sandstone Press – and the name of the high-budget Sky/ARD TV adaptation currently in production, directed by the wonderful Tom Tykwer (due to air later this year).

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The format of these kinds of literary events is a bit different in Germany. Volker read out three substantial extracts, each of which highlighted a specific aspect of the novel (the rising persecution of Jewish-German citizens in Nazi Germany; working life in the Berlin police; growing political tensions in Rath’s own family). Together, these showcased Kutscher’s writing talents and gave the 300-strong audience a tantalising glimpse of where Rath’s story is heading. There was also some interesting discussion:

  • Kutscher revealed that he plans to write nine novels in the ‘Rath’ series, ending in 1938, the year of the Reichskristallnacht pogrom (Night of Broken Glass), when it’s clear that Nazi persecution of the Jews is escalating and war is on the horizon. In addition, there’ll probably be a collection of stories to round the series off, giving ten books in total. His editor at Kiepenheuer&Witsch has different ideas; he’s going to try to persuade Kutscher to write more.
  • The character of Gereon Rath is purposefully flawed. The author doesn’t want him to be viewed as a hero – the emphasis is on how he navigates his way through the very difficult political times in which the series is set.
  • Kutscher’s Berlin is inspired by Erich Kästner’s Emil und die Detektive [Emil and the Detectives, 1929], and by American gangster stories and films. He uses old films and photos of everyday life in Berlin to get the detail right, especially when buildings no longer exist, such as the Alexanderplatz Police Headquarters (now the hideous Alexa shopping centre).

I had a bit of a chat with Volker after the event… Watch this space for some very exciting news….!

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The big Dussmann bookshop in the centre of town has a section dedicated to Berlin Krimis

Another lovely stop was coffee with Katy Derbyshire to talk all things translation. Katy’s the translator of one of my favourite German crime novels – Simon Urban’s Plan Dand posts fascinating notes about the process of translating on her blog, love german books. You can read her post on Plan D here, which also gives an insight into the crucial role translators can play in getting European novels published in the UK.

Then it was off to the Miss Marple crime bookshop in Charlottenburg, where I picked up the first in the ‘Markus Cheng’ private investigator series by Austrian author Heinrich Steinfest (Piper, 2007 [2000]). I’ve been keen to get hold of this one since it was covered by Marieke Krajenbrink in our Crime Fiction in German volume. It’s not yet available in translation, but looks like a lot of fun – the setting is Vienna and the narrative has a nicely sardonic tone.

Miss Marple is one of at least three independent crime bookshops in Berlin – two others are Hammett and totsicher (dead certain). They seem to keep afloat quite nicely, probably because a German version of the net pricing agreement is still in place, which prevents them being undercut by bigger bookshops and supermarkets. That Germany is a nation of crime lovers was evident from the steady stream of customers during my visit, although there’s clearly a threat from big online retailers, as shown by the paper bag in which my book was wrapped.

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Rough translation of the slogan on the bag: You don’t need to trek to the Amazon when there are books right on your doorstep

This time we also made it out to the Glienicke Brücke, which marked the Cold War border between Potsdam (in East Germany) and West Berlin from 1949 to 1989. The bridge hosted three major spy swaps, which earned it the nickname The Bridge of Spies. The latter is of course also the title of the 2015 Steven Spielberg film starring Tom Hanks, which depicted the Abel/Powers exchange of 1962. I’d been very keen to visit for a while, and being there certainly lived up to expectations. You can very much feel the weight of history, and standing at the centre of the bridge, on the line between east and west, felt very strange indeed. It also happens to be an exceptionally beautiful spot, with views out over two large and very lovely lakes.

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Clockwise from left: detail from bridge railing; bridge from eastern lower side; view over the lake standing by the bridge on western side; centre of the bridge, marked by a metal line saying ‘German division until 1989’.

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Giant GDR symbol used as a film prop in Spielberg’s The Bridge of Spies. Now in the Villa Schöningen exhibition about the bridge (on the eastern side)

You can read more about the Glienicke Bridge and its spy swaps over at history.com.

To finish off, here’s a selection of the food we hoovered up while in Berlin. Return trip to be scheduled soon.

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From top left: German herring salad; Franzbroetchen; (divine) roll with cheese; giant portion of cheesecake; Vietnamese won ton; Apfelstrudel with whipped cream; Turkish selection of starters with Efes beer, Vietnamese beef dish with aniseed broth; Berliner Bier

A week in Berlin: Krimis, Krimis and yet more Krimis

I was lucky enough to spend the whole of last week on a research trip in snowy Berlin, and was sure to squeeze every last drop from the marvellous opportunities this world city has to offer.

Section of the former Berlin Wall

The main reason for my trip was to see the 5500 crime novels or Krimis (Krimi = ‘Kriminalroman’) in the Kuczynsky Collection at the Berlin Central Library for my  research into East German crime fiction.

Jürgen Kuczynsky (1904-1997), a prominent GDR academic and political adviser to Honecker, was a keen crime fan, and according to the archivists had a regular cigar-for-crime-novel exchange agreement with the famous dramatist Bertolt Brecht. I was very kindly given access to this as yet uncatalogued collection, and in the course of my visit unearthed a number of extremely interesting texts, such as Gerhard Scherfling’s fascinating East German crime novel Die Zeitungsnotiz (The Newpaper Item, 1973), in which a historian is revealed as the murderer and as a former Nazi (one for my database…). I was able to peruse these on a tatty yet comfortable sofa, which was bequeathed to the library along with Kuczynski’s books, and sits in the corner of the vast storage room where the collection is currently housed. I imagine that Jürgen and Bert had some lovely chats about crime fiction while parked there.

I was also fortunate enough to be able to visit all of Berlin’s crime bookshops. Berlin is an absolute mecca for Krimi fans, as it has not one, not two, but three wonderful bookshops packed to the rafters with crime. Finding them took me all over the city, from Prenzlauer Berg in the north-east, where the Krimibuchhandlung todsicher (‘dead certain’) is located, to Charlottenburg and the Miss Marple bookshop in the west, and finally to Schöneberg and the Hammett bookshop in the south-east, near the old Tempelhof airport.

The very helpful lady in todsicher presented me with an absolute treasure trove: a whole box of GDR crime fiction from the DIE series (a witty acronym that stands for Delikte Indizien Ermittlungen / crimes, clues, investigations).

While the other two didn’t carry GDR crime (according to the owner of Hammett, the continued existence of a ‘literary wall’ means there’s little demand for works from East German publishing houses), they did have stacks of contemporary crime fiction set in Berlin, which I was also keen to see. Notably, there appears to be a mini-explosion of twentieth-century historical series by German authors at the moment, which are being strongly promoted in mainstream bookshops as well as more specialist outlets. The following caught my eye:

Volker Kutscher’s ‘Gereon Rath’ series (2007-): three novels set in 1930s Berlin (Der nasse Fisch, Der stumme Tod, Goldstein; English descriptions and sample translations available here).

Uwe Klausner’s ‘Tom Sydow’ series (2009-): four novels set in Berlin between 1942 and 1961 (Walhalla-Code, Odessa-Komplott, Bernstein-Connection, Kennedy-Syndrom).

The ‘es geschah in Berlin Kettenroman’ (the ‘it happened in Berlin chain-novel’; 2007-): currently fourteen novels set in Berlin between 1910 and 1936, featuring investigator Hermann Kappes. This series was conceived by the famous German crime writer Horst Bosetzky, but – very intriguingly – is written by a number of different authors. It’s apparently achieved cult status in Germany.

I also picked up a standalone crime novel by Mechtild Borrmann entitled Wer das Schweigen bricht (The One who Breaks the Silence, Pendragon 2011), which won the Deutscher Krimi Preis in 2012. It’s a crime novel that engages with the legacy of the National Socialism through the story of a son researching his industrialist father’s wartime past.

None of these have been translated into English as yet, although the rights to Kutscher’s novels have been snapped up in a number of other countries, including Japan.

And as if all of that wasn’t enough…I got to hang out in Berlin the same week as the Berlinale film festival and the resignation of the German President due to a corruption scandal. No visit to Berlin is ever dull. I first visited in 1988, a year before the Wall came down, and every time I go back, I continue to be amazed at the dramatic changes taking place there – best appreciated visually from the top of the space-age Fernsehturm by the Alexanderplatz.

Fernsehturm as seen from the Alex

Most striking this time round was the disappearance of the Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic), the East German 1970s parliamentary building on Unter den Linden, which was demolished in 2008 due to its high asbestos content. The city now has ambitious plans to rebuild the Berliner Stadtschloss (Berlin City Palace), which originally stood on the site between the 1750s and 1950 … the year in which the war-damaged building was torn down by the GDR regime! Berlin is full of these sorts of mind-blowing twists and turns, with buildings, streets and even whole districts being dramatically reshaped by historical events and the rise and fall of different regimes. On discovering that one street had undergone six name changes between 1907 and 1990, I had to retreat for a calming Bier.*

All in all, it was a highly profitable and enjoyable week, and I’m already looking forward to returning to Berlin soon. Lots of reading to keep me going until then though – my return luggage contained a ridiculous number of new Krimis, which I only just managed to lug home.

*Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz: was Babelsberger Platz (1907-10), Bülowplatz (1910-33), Horst-Wessel-Platz (1933-45), Liebknechtplatz (1945-47) and Luxemburgplatz (1947-69) before taking its current name in 1969.