If you haven’t already guessed, I love Berlin. But boy oh boy sometimes this city makes you work for your affections. There’s the near-impossible native language (which has gone so far as to bring me to tears and cause a pretty insane ice-cream addiction), the turbulent weather that can never quite decide what it wants to be when, and then there’s German bureaucracy. Stereotypes aside, it is always difficult to start afresh in a new country. I remember having just as much difficulty opening a bank account when I first moved to London, for example, but in the UK as an Australian, that was really the only step I had to go through. Here, it’s just one box on an extensive checklist that I’m trying to complete before my visa appointment in a few weeks time.
At times the amount of paperwork, particularly when trying to navigate through language barriers at the same time, feels overwhelming. In the last week or so it has gotten the better of me. There have been difficult night’s sleep, headaches and stress. Luckily there are people around me who understand — any non-EU citizen living in Berlin is faced with similar trials. I know the world will not end if my visa is delayed or denied. I am lucky to be in a position where I have options available to me. Being here has made me check my privilege and this is just one example. But despite the difficulties and adjustments, I love it here. I don’t want to leave. I’m not ready to leave.
Part of my settling in here is seeking ways to engage with German culture, and of course being a book-lover I’m on the lookout for German novels that are available as English translations. So far it’s a little more difficult than I imagined. There are plenty of opportunities to buy Gillian Flynn, Haruki Murakami, or Dave Eggers, but fewer to buy local authors. (Coincidentally I wrote about this for The Wheeler Centre this week.) As I slowly make my way around Berlin bookstores, I’m finding better options. Though I think in the long-run it will be easier for me to buy books second-hand than new here, I’ve found a few places that sell the kind of books I’m drawn to. And so I was thrilled to find as I was pottering in a local bookshop one day Daniel Kehlmann’s F, translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway.
Arthur Freidland is father to Martin (by a previous wife), and to Ivan and Eric (twins to his second wife). After taking his teenage sons out for the day to a hypnotist show, Arthur quickly runs away from his sons, his wife and all responsibilities. He takes his passport, empties his bank account and disappears. After years of no ambition, he becomes a successfully published author.
Arthur's first book, My Name Is No One, brings about a great existential crisis of the masses and is blamed on several suicides and debated in parliament. It’s message: human consciousness is meaningless and none of us actually exist. But Arthur’s book also acts as a metaphor for the existential crises faced by each of his sons: Martin, the non-believing priest who feels completely invisible; Eric, the broke financial manager waiting to be sprung by the police for fraud and by his wife for cheating on her; and Ivan, the art dealer secretly forging the work he sells as works of masters.
F is about the absurdity’s of the world, of letting go and embracing what comes next, its about faith and morality but never preaches. As Arthur says to his son: ’A life doesn't last long, Ivan. If you're not careful, you squander it in stupidities.’ As a thirteen-year-old Ivan is trying to figure out what art is and what it means hits on the heart of the novel: ‘There was nothing about it in any book. No one to help you. No book, no teacher. You had to figure out everything important for yourself, and if you didn’t, you had failed your life’s purpose.’ Kehlmann does not shy away from insecurities within masculinity, of the pressures of responsibility and the guilt at not succeeding in the traditional masculine role of father and provider:
’…A man is not who a man was.’
‘And yet a man is finally who a man is,’ said Arthur.
‘Who a man is?’
‘Who a man was.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Just a joke.’
What kind of joke?’
Arthur didn’t reply. Marie looked at the cards she was holding and waited.
‘We don’t have much time,’ said Arthur.
This is a book about people figuring out what the hell we’re doing here and how to make the most of it. It’s about human failures and eccentricities that make life simultaneously more difficult but also more interesting. Kehlmann’s prose is funny in a dark and satirical way. You are unlikely to laugh out loud reading F but you will be highly amused by little details such as the young man who keeps appearing in the story wearing a t-shirt that says 'Bubbletea is not a drink I like'.
In the end everything comes together. Kehlmann maintains the surreal to an extent, but plot wise it all fits together a little too neatly. After adjusting to the ridiculous hyper-real world of the Freidland's I didn't want them to make sense of their lives or their surroundings, or for everything to come to a neat conclusion. I was seduced by the spinning colours and didn't want the Rubik's cube to fit perfectly together — the beauty was in the everyday mess of understanding who we are, of embracing eccentricity and individualism, not in how to make that work in a modern capitalist society. Yes, this is a comment on Europe in the early days of the global financial crisis, but as we now know, things are never that neatly packaged and easily resolved.
The weather in Berlin is incredibly unpredictable. There are stretches of grey skies for days, then just as you’re ready to give up on summer a burst of heat brings beautiful blue skies and warm summer days. I’ve been trying to boost my struggling immune system with some extra vitamin C and antioxidants, and hibiscus tea is strong in both of these properties. The dried flowers can be made into a warming tea with boiling water and sweetened with a little squeeze of honey, but on warm days I’ve been making a refreshing iced tea based on this recipe. My version is less sweet, made from two heaped tablespoons of hibiscus, four slices of fresh ginger, one tablespoon of sugar dissolved in 100ml of hot water then cooled, then 500ml of cold water poured over the lot and left to infuse for six to eight hours, served with plenty of fresh lime juice. Inspired by Penguin’s The Happy Reader, in which issue two tells many tales of my favourite brew inspired by Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea, I’ve been taking my time, thinking about quantities and temperature, and taking a moment to stop and enjoy the final product, rather than gulping it down and moving onto the next thing. On a sunny afternoon in Berlin sitting on the window sill, watching the world go by and soaking up the sunshine, things feel pretty good indeed.
This week saw the sad passing of Kat Muscat: writer, editor and friend to all in Australia’s tight-knit young writers’ community, she will be dearly missed. Sending all of my love to my dear friends at home who are struggling to deal with their loss, but who are doing exactly what Kat would be doing right now - supporting each other in their grief, drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes, and giving a friend a big hug when it’s needed. If you’re in Melbourne there are more details about Tuesday’s memorial service via Express Media, or you can read a beautiful ode to Kat by my literary family at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. May you be at peace beautiful girl.