A city, brick by brick

Roads to Berlin

A city, brick by brick

For decades, Holland’s Cees Nooteboom has had a towering reputation in international letters. An acclaimed novelist and poet, Nooteboom has won major literary awards and remains one of the Nobel Prize committee’s most notable oversights.

His significant contribution to travel writing is best-represented by his 1992 book, Roads to Santiago, which charts and scrutinises the pilgrims’ route across northern Spain and is now considered a classic.

But Roads to Berlin surpasses that achievement.

The reason may be the author’s lifelong, intimate understanding of the place. Germany has, for him, always seemed barely a breath away, first as a roaring, wartime menace that obliterated the quiet of his childhood in the Hague, and later as a captivating door into great literature.

And Berlin, the country’s troubled capital, has always been that second heartbeat, strange and yet familiar, relentless in its pull.

Nooteboom, opening with a recollection of his first visit, in 1963, when the Communist fist had tightened around the city, thrilling him with the sense of having slipped into a spy story, then shifts focus to a defining moment, some 26 years on, when he witnesses, experiences and celebrates the city’s literal and symbolic freeing, the coming down of the Berlin Wall and the breaking of a supposed new dawn.

A future loomed, as terrifying in its uncertainty as it was thrilling in its potential. The author, a natural but empathetic outsider, was on hand to procrastinate, and to document the questions and worries that were swamped by the euphoria of a crumbling regime.

As we’d rightfully expect from a writer as thoughtful and adept as Nooteboom, this is no mere travelogue.

Delivered with scholarly erudition, but also humour, pathos and a necessary melancholia, Roads to Berlin is a personalised guidebook, focusing on the places worth seeing, but it is also a deeply-considered musing on culture, politics and history, and is replete with wonderful punctuations of autobiography.

With chapters based on essays that were penned both in the moment and with the benefit of hindsight, the book ably expresses the confusion of a people after the eyes of the world had shifted focus, and triumphantly underlines the innate differences between East and West, the dour repression of one set hard against the capitalist exploitation of the other. The result presents a captivating view of one of the world’s most enigmatic cities.

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