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Book set in Berlin (The Mitropa Smile)

13th March 2014

Winter in Berlin; book set in Berlin by by Ian R Mitchell

1906817103.01.ZTZZZZZZI have a number of reasons for feeling well disposed to this short book set in Berlin. The first is its location. Like most English people (with the notable exception, apparently, of Basil Bunting), I love Berlin, both as an actual city and as an ideal fictional context. It seems to be one of those places it’s hard to write badly about – I’m thinking of Isherwood, Deighton, McEwan, Figes, Verhaeghen, Fallada (you can find these, and other writers, talking of Berlin in the fascinating city-lit Berlin anthology, a treasure trove of mood and information). The second is the title’s subliminal nod to a novel I greatly enjoyed a few years ago, C J Sansom’s Winter in Madrid, and the two books do have several things in common: they’re both set during a period of historical conflict, and they both look at the way the border between private and public, emotional and political, can become blurred, and at the consequences this can have. Finally, on a personal note, I recently published a novella, The Slave House, describing the adventures of a young expatriate in post-revolutionary Portugal, and I wanted to see how another author dealt with potentially similar material. First, the city itself. The story is set in the early 1980s, behind the Wall in what was then the GDR (or DDR, as the text prefers). Mitchell is careful to locate events precisely – a map would have been nice – and it was fun to follow the movements of the (unnamed) hero as he settles into the business of living in a foreign city. The protagonist’s sympathies often appear to be broadly, although not uncritically, with the regime, or at least not with the dominant culture of the west. This is sustained by the choice of contemporary newspaper clippings that separate chapters, which place the action of the novel in a larger political context. He’s certainly not taken in by the United States. On a visit to those “thousands of miles of nothing…he had listened, fascinated, to these well-mannered, perpetual adolescents, understanding why a second-rate movie ham had just become elected as the arbiter of the world’s destiny.” It’s refreshing to read what often seems to be a semi-apologist’s take on the divided city, although, following a description of a bear pit on the banks of the Spree, the hero “thought how easy it would be to tumble into, but how difficult to get out of, that pit”, which is fairly unambiguous. He also remarks that the bear, the symbol of the city (although the author isn’t crass enough to point this out), wasn’t “hibernating”, but “dozing”, a moment of prescience in a book that is otherwise blissfully unaware of just how near the destruction of the Wall actually is. The book is wonderfully rooted in its own mundane reality. Details of daily life in the city, such as the lack of plastic bags in shops, are precise, telling and kept to a convincing minimum. Perhaps for motives of authenticity, though, the book makes far more use of the local language than is normal in fiction of this type. For readers without German (like me), there’s a handy glossary at the back of the book, but it’s hard not to feel that the general effect of foreignness might have been achieved with a little less recourse to another language. Second, the title. I may be wrong, but I suspect that either the publisher or the author himself decided to piggy-back on Sansom’s bestseller status by demoting an original title – The Mitropa Smile – to a subsidiary role. This probably makes sound commercial sense, but it’s also a pity because the novel makes frequent reference to the latter, and there’s a sense in which the Mitropa smile represents a fundamental truth about the book. Mitropa (a contraction of Mittel Europa) was the name of the company that provided catering services on German trains and the smile first appears on the face of the cook as the hero arrives in the city, described as “an ironic smile he would grow used to”. The irony of the smile lies in the gap between what it conveys and what it conceals. It’s a wink to the wise, if you like, an acknowledgement that what is said isn’t always – or ever – meant to be taken at its face value. As an American defector, working as a journalist in the city, comments about the East German rulers: “When they tell lies nobody believes them, but when they tell the truth nobody believes them either”.  The Mitropa smile is a constant reminder of this state of knowing and not-knowing that makes life possible under the unrelenting duress of a regime. Third, the young man abroad. Mitchell’s hero is a man with a mission, and one who knows as much about his adopted country as anyone who wasn’t born there might be expected to, so he’s a long way from my own naïve and foolish hero in The Slave House, who wasn’t even aware that Portugal had just emerged from Fascist dictatorship. But that doesn’t necessarily save him; ignorance, in the end, may offer no more protection than knowledge. Talking to a barman about Scotland, Mitchell’s cannier, and considerably better informed, hero remarks on the lack of riots in his home country. “…we have no riots. We think too much. Such men are not dangerous.” Thought and action, even dangerous action, aren’t always in opposition, of course, and the one doesn’t necessarily protect from the consequences of the other. I won’t say whether this is the case or not in Winter in Berlin. I wouldn’t want to spoil anyone’s pleasure in reading such a finely crafted, politically astute and thoughtful short novel for themselves.

Thank you to author Charles Lambert for this fabulous review of Winter in Berlin

You can follow Charles on his blog and twitter. Read our review of Charles Lambert’s fabulous novel set in Rome “The View from the Tower”

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  1. Pingback: Winter in Berlin, by Ian R Mitchell | CHARLES LAMBERT

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