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Aug 2004 Journal

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Sights, sounds and smells of 1920s Berlin

WHAT I SAW: REPORTS FROM BERLIN, 1920-1933
Joseph Roth
Granta, £8.99

This gem of a book is a compilation of articles written by Joseph Roth for a number of German newspapers. The scenes he describes are ordinary enough, but changed by the alchemy of his eye for the telling detail and the originality of his imagery. Many aspects of the city come under his scrutiny, including a new skyscraper, a park in a poor neighbourhood, sleezy bars and a café frequented by the litterati. It is a Berlin trying to recover from the traumas of the Second World War, a Berlin familiar from the pen of Christopher Isherwood, but Roth gives a much broader view of its diversity.

There is an impish vein of fantasy in his essay on 'Schiller Park':

I have long been curious as to what park wardens do in the winter. It's scarcely credible that they should ever leave their parks to share a kitchen with wives and children. Much more likely that they wrap themselves in straw and rags, and passersby take them for rose-trees ... or that they dig in for the winter, and come out in the spring along with the violets and primulas.

One of the most poignant essays is 'The Jewish Quarter', which he observes with detachment but not without sympathy. He describes refugees fleeing from pogroms in the East who have taken lodgings in the Grenardierstrasse:

They come from Ukraine, from Galicia, from Hungary ... The boarding-house smells of dirty laundry, Sauerkraut and masses of people. Bodies all huddled together lie on the floor like luggage on a railway platform. A few old Jews are smoking their pipes ... Squealings and screechings of children in the corners.

He writes of the Jewish condition in general: 'Of all the thousand ways that they [the Jews] have gone ... not one leads to a concrete, earthly goal. No Jewish Homeland, no place of liberty.' Yet, strangely enough, he is vehemently opposed to Zionism. Nor is there a hint in the early essays of the horrors to come, save perhaps in the very lack of cohesiveness he finds in the city.

The final essay, dated 1933, is an elegy to the creativity destroyed by Nazism. He gives a long list of Jewish artists and thinkers whose work is banned by the new regime in the triumph of 'the Prussian drill-sergeant' over the Weimar intellectual.

Roth gives the impression that he has no real sense of belonging to the city he describes so vividly. This accounts perhaps for the irony of his writing. Nevertheless, this book, excellently translated by Michael Hofmann, is not to be missed by anyone who wants to be reminded of the sights, sounds and smells of 1920s Berlin.
Martha Blend

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