The anonymous visitor in Cristina Garcia’s Here in Berlin seems a stand-in for the reader. She is anonymous, faceless, unknown. She has just arrived in Berlin in 2013 and wanders the city talking to people. The book is a collection of short narratives, her conversations with the people she encounters in the different parts of the city.
She must talk to lots of old people because many of the narratives are of World War II. She also talks to many fellow Cubans, people who emigrated to East Germany when it was allied with Cuba. The individual stories are compelling. The people are more self-analytical and self-aware than people usually are in conversation, but then the Visitor is anonymous and self-revelation in anonymity is easier.
It would be misleading to call these stories, they are vignettes. Short conversations, soliloquies, seemingly disconnected, their only common thread their location in Berlin. But then, while reading, the Reader will begin to form connections, relating one story to another, weaving together the disparate threads into a more coherent story. It is almost as though Garcia is asking the Reader to write the story from the Visitor’s notes.
I liked Here in Berlin quite a bit. It is very experimental in form, demanding a lot of its readers, but I like books that ask more from me than passively reading and receiving information. It is slow to coalesce into a novel, though. Until I reached the critical mass of conversations necessary for the narrative threads to become visible, it was all too random. I was asking myself, “What am I reading?” Without a narrative thread, it could have been boring, except, of course, the stories were so dramatic, so violent, so painful.
Of course, not all stories are stories of World War II, and not all World War II vignettes were tragic. There is an amusing story of a young man captured by a German submarine crew who comes back months later and no one believes him. He parleys his experience in captivity into a fortune. It is amusing. Others are far more cruel and painful.
This is a novel whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts – if the reader reads actively, weaving together the disparate conversations. Garcia has an amazing ability to capture a person in just a few quick sentences.
I received an e-galley for review from the publisher through Edelweiss.