Posted by: jbwuk | February 12, 2010

Berlin/Jaffa

It was my birthday on Sunday and the occasion of my very first trip to Germany, more exactly to Berlin. Having been brought up in a family where everything German was simply banned, from dishwashers and cars to language and literature, I guess I had to wait for most people of my parents’ generation to have disappeared before I could go there. Plus, visiting by minus 6, pavements covered with ice and snow, made the chances of meeting anyone who could have done anything during WW2 practically impossible. Having already travelled to Krakow (a friend’s birthday) and to Vienna (tagging on my husband’s business trip), Icould certainly not justify refusing to visit the country that has made the greatest efforts to atone for its crimes.

I am indeed glad I went. Berlin is a fascinating city. One of the first things I saw, arriving on Friday late afternoon and staying in the centre, was the huge dome of the New Synagogue. I found it an incredibly moving sight particularly once I read more about it. That the Berlin community could have felt the need for a place to gather 3500 people and been confident enough to be so conspicuous was just mindbogling in regard to what would happen to them. It was the splendid home of the most integrated and forward community, host to Handel oratorios and talks by the first woman rabbi, Regina Jonas (although not as a rabbi). I also find it very moving to think that the synagogue survived the fires of Kristalnacht, was mostly damaged by the Allied bombings but finally destroyed (apart from the facade) after the war when the 200 or so remaining members of the community in what was then East Berlin just gave up on thinking of preserving or rebuilding their great synagogue. Now the dome has been restored and shines in all its splendour over a small museum, an empty shell guarded by stern security. It stands in the middle of a lively area, full of fun restaurants and bars, art galleries, a huge commune of artists and, at night, haunted by scores of prostitutes perched on crazily high heels, all wearing the same uniform laced corset and pacing their bit of icy pavement.

In the next two days, I visited Libeskind’s famous Jewish museum, his first actual commission after 20 years of teaching architecture. The building is certainly impressive but I was surprised to see the Holocaust merely glossed over. I know it’s a Jewish museum and not a Holocaust museum but still,  it could have given a bit more information to what happened in the camps, seemingly prefering a more abstract experience as exemplified by the profoundly moving Holocaust Tower. The same applies to the extremely beautiful and suggestive Holocaust monument, made probably even more poignant by its undisturbed snow cover.

We walked all over Mitte, saw the remains of the Wall, old and new architecture, visited a couple of amazing museums, comtemplated at length Gaspar David Friedrich’s paintings, enjoyed great Italian, Thai and “panAsian” cuisines and definitely promised ourselves to come back in the summer to discover what must be a completely different city.

Usually, when travelling abroad, I take a book by an author from the country I’m visiting. In this case, so close to JBW, I did not have this luxury. Of course, I had already read Chloe Aridjis very atmospheric and haunting Book of Clouds which she will present at the festival on Wednesday 3 March. She is a very interesting new voice and definitely worth discovering. I had also read Julia Franck’s The Blind Side of the Heart which we’ve already blogged about and which she will discuss with Norman Lebrecht and Simon Mawer on Sunday 28 February.

I took with me Alon Hilu’s House of Rajani, his second historical novel, set in Jaffa at the end of the 19th century. Alon is a rising star in the Israeli literary firmament. He won the Sapir Prize for this book even though the award was eventually withdrawn because one of the judges had some family ties with his publisher, as if, in a country as small as Israel, it was possible to find a totally independent and unrelated jury! Alon’s parents came to Israel from Syria, giving him an altogether different perspective on Israel’s history. His novel is remarkable because it has two completely unreliable narrator. One is Isaac Luminsky, a handsome 27 year old settler with a difficult wife, the other is Salah, a disturbed child growing up on a beautiful but dilapidated estate out of Jaffa, alone with his mother and a maid. Each tells his story and gives utterly different accounts of the same events. Isaac and Salah become friends. The child needs a father figure, a man who will give him the confidence and stability he needs; the young agronomist covets both the land and the mother. Hilu deftly renders the complexity of the situation, the conflicting narratives, self delusions and lies, which turn into betrayals and growing violence. This is a remarkable book for remarkable times which will raise many questions and heated discussions. I can’t wait for Hilu’s discussion with Ian Black at JBW. I met him at the Paris Book Fair and he is a very articulate speaker.

Last year, we brought you two of Israel’s most famous writers, Amos Oz and AB Yehoshua, this year, trust us and discover the new generation Assaf Gavron with his riveting Croc-Attack! and Alon Hilu, alongside the much loved Etgar Keret.

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