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2022 in review: Berlin’s best books of the year

Our editors pick their favourite reads of the year from the local scene and further afield.

First up, Exberliner books editor Alexander Wells makes a selection of Berlin literature and German books in translation:

Best Berlin fiction: Three Streets (Yoko Tawada, trans. Margaret Mitsutani)

It has become a tired cliché to describe Berlin as a ‘city of ghosts’ – but brilliant Japanborn Berliner Tawada offers a genuinely original variation on the theme. Kollwitzstraße, Majakowskiring and Puschkinallee get transformed into surreal, lively stages where reality, imagination and local history intermingle.

Best Berlin non-fiction: The Stasi Poetry Circle (Philip Oltermann)

In this thoughtful book, The Guardian’s Berlin correspondent chases down the grimly interesting true story of a creative workshop run by the Stasi, for the Stasi. Oltermann’s narration is engaging and sensitive: he treats himself to occasional moments of literary flair. Move over, Robin Williams: here’s the ‘Red Poets Society’.

Berlin author of the year: The Geometer Lobachevsky (Adrian Duncan)

What a 2022 it’s been for Adrian Duncan. First, the talented Irishborn novelist published this haunting exploration of mathematics, masculinity and more. Then came a UK release for his earlier A Sabbatical in Leipzig and a fascinating, new nonfiction book named Bungalow Bliss. Bravo!

Best translated fiction: Bambi (Felix Salten, trans. Damion Searls)

New York Review Books is one of the best publishers active today, partly thanks to an astonishing knack for rediscovery. Who knew the story behind Disney’s cute deer was a gorgeous, unsettling, definitely-not-just-for-kids novel by a highbrow Jewish literary critic in interwar Vienna? Now we all do.

Best translated non-fiction: Africa’s Struggle for Its Art (Bénédicte Savoy, trans. Susanne Meyer-Abich)

This powerful work by French Berliner Savoy – a prominent art historian who advised the Humboldt Forum before quitting in protest – delves into the earlier history of Europe’s art restitution debates, revealing the trickery and obstinance of postwar European institutions from the 1960s to 1980s. A Sachbuch for our time.

Next, Exberliner culture writer Eve Lucas with her choices from a year of reading:

Best overall: The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future (Stephen Marche)

A frightening rendition of five speculative non-fiction scenarios that might trigger America’s next civil war. Eco-catastrophes, rogue sheriffs, assassinations and sovereign citizens – take your pick and take cover. Marche’s fictive presentation of individuals battling breakdown is heart-thumping reading.

Best fiction: My Monticello (Jocelyn Nicole Johnson)

Concentrating on race issues, this novel pits a group of urban exiles surrounding African-American student Da’Naisha against white supremacists, bent on asserting themselves in an ecologically fragile nearfuture. Johnson’s visionary prose won her a 2022 Pen-Faulkner longlist nomination. Rightly so.

Best non-fiction: The Journey of Humanity: The Origins of Wealth and Inequality (Oded Galor)

An exploration of the factors behind global inequality. Galor casts a wide historical net – starting with early migration – to explain how some societies embraced diversity and human capital while others remained locked in hand-to-mouth cycles. Big science at its timely best.

Author of the year: Missouri Williams

This debut novel imagines a family living on the outskirts of a European city devastated by eco-catastrophe. The Matriarch rules over variously disabled and cunning children, binding this dystopia with an enchanted narrative that crumbles when she deviates from her story. Compellingly poetic.

Best translation: The Short End of the Sonnenallee (Thomas Brussig, trans. Jonathan Franzen and Jenny Watson)

For relief from the hard times ahead, go back to the future with this quirky, pre-Wende tale of teenage crushes, tiny flats and musical revolt in the East Berlin section of Sonnenallee. The English translation will be published in April 2023.

Looking forward in 3 trends

Deutschland diverse

The bookshelf of German-language literature available in English translation has long been dominated by older white West German men. But things are shifting – with Berlin, naturally, at the epicentre. Eastern women like Judith Schalansky and Katja Oskamp have recently been celebrated internationally, while 2022 saw novels about race and belonging by Olivia Wenzel and Mithu Sanyal appear in translation. Vive la différence!

Coming back to live

The lifting of corona restrictions in 2022 saw the vigorous return of live book events to international Berlin. The Berlin International Book Festival took place entirely in person, while local institutions like Parataxe, Hopscotch, The Reader and Berlin Writers Workshop also played host. Most excitingly, the Exberliner- Dussmann reading series will continue into 2023, starting with Adrian Duncan and Rebecca Rukeyser on January 18.

Read local

Looking towards 2023, there has scarcely been a better year to become a literary locavore. Top billing goes to new novels in translation from two Berlin icons, Jenny Erpenbeck and Sharon Dodua Otoo; translations will also bring work by Thomas Brussig and DDR cult author Brigitte Reimann into English. And don’t miss Ukraine-born Yevgenia Belorusets’s ultra-timely War Diaries.