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  • Berlin Blues to Marzahn, Mon Amour: 20 years of Berlin in 20 books

20 years of Exberliner

Berlin Blues to Marzahn, Mon Amour: 20 years of Berlin in 20 books

These 20 books - all published since Exberliner started - show the hopes, dreams, failures and fantasies of Berlin over two decades.

What books over defined the last 20 years of Berlin?

1. Anna Funder, Stasiland (2003)

The most definitive books are not always the best. Australian author Anna Funder’s bestselling literary travelogue about the Stasi and its terrors might not have been particularly well written or well researched – but it cannot be matched for popularity and impact. Originally released in 2003, it has since been published in 20 countries and 16 languages. Certainly, in that time, no book has triggered such strong opinions both for and against: fans appreciate its emotional power and artful interweaving of interviews with travelogue, while critics point to its kitschy sentimentalism and its reduction of all East German life to a totalitarian nightmare.

2. Sven Regener, Berlin Blues (2003)

Perhaps no one book captured the mythology of 1980s Kreuzberg quite as well as rockstar turned author Sven Regener’s 2001 Herr Lehmann. The novel was translated into English and made into a film two years later. Regener’s charismatic novel stars a slacker who engages in a variety of classic young-in-Berlin activities – drinking heavily, lying to one’s parents, finding and losing love, discarding youthful illusions – before the fall of the Wall spits him out of his beloved bohemia and into a new historical era.

3. Joseph Roth, What I Saw (2004)

When the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth’s “feuilletons” from interwar Berlin (1920-1933) were published in English, they triggered a minor sensation in the literary world – and deservedly so. These short essays, which combine aspects of reportage, opinion and observation, are more than just a multifaceted chronicle of our city during a time of great excitement and upheaval. They are works of literature in their own right: entertaining, beautiful and deeply humane.

4. Paul Beatty, Slumberland (2008)

One of the US’s most original literary voices, Paul Beatty hit the big time in 2015 with his Booker-winning race satire The Sellout. His preceding novel sees an American DJ move to 1980s Berlin in search of a disappeared avant-garde jazzman. This wildly irreverent picaresque novel stitches together humorous set pieces and extended riffs on race, music, desire and Cold War culture, all performed against the shifting backdrop of reunifying Berlin.

5. Chloe Aridjis, Book of Clouds (2009)

Mexican-American author Aridjis’s debut novel portrays the city through the eyes of Tatiana, an unmoored young Jewish woman who moves to Berlin from Mexico. More interesting than the plot is Tatiana’s lyrical vision of Berlin as a mysterious, alienating palimpsest that mixes “old and new, logic and impulse, grit and glamour” – and ultimately delivers up violence. The result is haunting and memorable, if not entirely free of cliché.

6. Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin (2009)

This gripping novel – a fictionalisation of the true story of Elise and Otto Hampel, two working-class Berliners that bravely resisted the Nazis – was a surprise bestseller in 2009-2010, when it received its first English-language translation some 60 years after its 1947 German release. Author Hans Fallada wrote the whole thing over about four weeks in late 1946, using real files and documents about the Hampel couple.

7. Sharon Dodua Otoo, Things I Am Thinking While Smiling Politely (2012)

Author, scholar, publisher and activist – the British Wahlberlinerin has a great many strings to her bow. She recently won the 2016 Bachmann Prize and hit 2021 bestseller lists for her German novel Adas Raum. But she can do it in English too, as her fine debut novella attests. This record of a marriage in breakdown, set against the streetscapes and international communities of Kreuzberg, is formally accom- plished and full of compassion.

8. Wladimir Kaminer, Russian Disco (2013)

After moving to Berlin in 1990, Moscow-born Kaminer became a serious mover-and-shaker in the city’s cultural scene – he wrote for city magazine Zitty, ran radio shows and the hugely popular music parties at Kaffee Burger and even briefly considered running for mayor. This collection of his short comic sketches, published in German in 2000, brings post-Wall Berlin vividly to life, from Bulgarians running Turkish restaurants to rundown Prenzlauer Berg apartments to the ironies and challenges of being a Soviet-Jewish émigré in the German capital.

9. Rory Maclean, Berlin: Imagine a City (2014)

Among the many attempts to account for Berlin’s whole past in one book, this work by bestselling British-Canadian travel writer Rory Maclean stands out for its original form. Instead of a continuous chronological narrative, Maclean draws 23 portraits of creative Berliners from history: Frederick the Great, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, David Bowie, and beyond. Maclean’s wide-ranging book offers plenty to enjoy – provided you can stomach some sentimental carry-on about the power of art.

10. Wolfgang Hilbig, “I” (2015)

A proletarian autodidact from a DDR mining town who became one of post-Wall Germany’s most celebrated novelists, Wolfgang Hilbig was not really discovered by the anglosphere until eight years after his death, when he was brought into English by Berlin’s own star translator Isabel Fargo Cole. But ever since the English-language publication of “I” – a dark 1993 novel about the Stasi and East Berlin’s literary underground – he has earned an enthusiastic international cult following for his unique maximalist style and his unremitting portrayals of 20th-century Germany.

11. Gail Jones, A Guide to Berlin (2015)

This clever, thought-provoking novel by a veteran Australian author takes its title from (ex-Berliner) Vladimir Nabokov’s short story of the same name. Writerly young expat Cass moves to Berlin and falls in with a multinational group of Nabokov fans who meet in empty apartments throughout the city. There they hold “speak-memory” sessions, stagily oversharing their personal histories and traumas. But can talking about the past help you come to terms with it, individually or collectively? No spoilers here.

12. Volker Kutscher, Babylon Berlin (2016)

Many anglophones are already familiar with the big-budget television series that has helped fuel global obsession with Berlin’s legendary Golden Twenties. Less well known internationally – but still worth checking out – is the original series of German-language crime novels that Tom Twyker adapted for screen: an instant hit in Germany ever since debuting with 2007’s Der nasse Fisch.

13. Yoko Tawada, Memoirs of a Polar Bear (2016)

Knut the baby Eisbär was once the icon of Berlin, or at least the Berlin Zoo. In this novel, originally published in German in 2014, the gifted Japan-born Berlinerin Yoko Tawada gives literary voice to Knut, his mother and his grandmother. Gimmicky as it sounds, Eisbär is a masterful work of fiction, one that probes themes of language, exile and the relationship between humans and animals.

14. Paul Hockenos, Berlin Calling (2017)

No city is more associated with subculture, underground, and anarchic creativity than Berlin. In this book, long-time Berlin-based journalist Paul Hockenos dives into the local history of alternative culture both before and after the fall of the Wall – and extemporises intelligently on what this heritage means for a city that began morphing in 2017 from indie outpost to “world city”.

15. Jessica J. Lee, Turning (2017)

“Swimming would be a way of staying with my fears, a way of staying in place.” So Lee writes in this gorgeous memoir, structured around the author swimming in 52 Berlin-Brandenburg lakes over the 52 weeks of the year. The British-Canadian-Taiwanese author charts the changing seasons from within various bodies of water, while meditating on loss and identity and the chance of new beginnings – and unfurling a remarkable account of the city and its surrounds.

16. Jenny Erpenbeck, Go, Went, Gone (2017)

Arguably the city’s most accomplished living author, Erpenbeck brought her literary talent and unique sense of history to bear on the “refugee crisis” in this novel about a widowed classics professor who gets to know a group of African asylum seekers in Berlin. The violence of bureaucracy and the dark ironies of globalisation come through powerfully in Erpenbeck’s thoughtful, morally forceful work. A book, and an author, for our times.

17. Paul Scraton, Built on Sand (2019)

Veteran expat author, travel guide and editor of literary journal Elsewhere, Paul Scraton knows the stories of Berlin as well as just about anyone. His charming, intelligent debut novel uses a vast wealth of facts and perspectives about the city to assemble a lively kaleidoscopic portrait of Berlin and Berliners – and a fascinating exploration of how people relate to the environs they call home.

18. Lauren Oyler, Fake Accounts (2021)

It’s 2017 and, with Donald Trump freshly elected to the White House, a snarky young literary Brooklynite moves to Berlin – Neukölln, of course – where she goes on dates, hangs out on the internet and complains about other people being full of shit. Oyler, a prominent US-born critic and essayist, pulls no punches in this hilarious satire of expats, the “expat novel”, online culture, contemporary literature and much besides.

19. Musa Okwonga, In the End, It Was All About Love (2021)

In this autobiographical novella, the formerly London-based football journalist uses a series of confessional fragments – interspersed with original poetry – to conjure a lyrical insight into the author’s life since moving to Berlin in 2014. Interweaving experiences of racism and homophobia alongside more everyday concerns like his amateur football career, his love of cake and the excitement of Berlin nightlife, Okwonga shows a city marked by hope and potential, but also by frustration and danger.

20. Katja Oskamp, Marzahn Mon Amour (2022)

After years as a struggling author in Prenzlauer Berg, Oskamp takes a job as a podiatrist out at Marzahn. This instant classic chronicles her time in one of Berlin’s poorer neighbourhoods through a series of tender, humorous, beautifully written sketches. What emerges is a portrait of Berlin that depends, not on sweeping gestures about dark history and great art, but on genuine engagement and surprising particularities. An inspiration, one hopes, for Berlin writing to come.

(Translated works are listed according to English edition release dates.)