Cristina García’s Here in Berlin is a hypnotic work that, through the effective use of multiple oral histories, creates a portrait of the former East German city, the effect its past still has upon residents old and young, and the fallout from Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union. We spoke with García about her haunting new novel.
Other authors have used oral histories in their works, although most of them, such as Studs Terkel and Svetlana Alexievich, have written nonfiction. Did you think about the works of these authors as you wrote this novel, and, if so, to what extent have their achievements influenced Here in Berlin and your work in general?
For me, the compelling first-person voice is one of utter persuasion, not just for the listeners, but for the storytellers themselves. Yet narrative, it seems to me, is always in competition with other narratives—official, familial, political, you name it. What interests me is not just what people remember but why, psychologically and emotionally, they need to remember specific events and details in the particular ways they do. How self-aggrandizing (or self-effacing) are the stories? What’s being left out? Who’s being protected, or vilified? It’s the stories not told in the telling that interest me most.
One assumes you decided that the use of oral histories was a good way to explore the themes you wanted to address. What was it about that type of narrative structure that made it seem the best choice for the story you wanted to tell?
The structure dictated itself through the voices that fought their way to inclusion. I wanted every voice to be individually nuanced and tell a story that no one else could tell, at least not in the same way. And yet the voices as a whole had to work in concert with the others, forge an insistent if dissonant chorus.
Continuing on the topic of the book’s themes, one of the obvious concerns of the book is an investigation into, as you put it, “the human fallout from Cuba’s long association with the Soviet bloc.” I imagine you did a lot of research into the subject as you wrote the book. Did you discover facts about that long association that you didn’t know before? How did those facts shape or alter the novel as you had originally conceived it?
My original idea about illuminating the complexities of Cuba’s political allegiances with Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was pretty quickly eclipsed by Berlin itself, which had its own tales to tell. My work, as I saw it, then became to listen, listen, listen to the city’s whisperings, to read and wander, eavesdrop and absorb, to get out of my own way and eschew any preordained conclusions about what the novel should be. I became less a journalist/researcher than an observer. It was only when I became passive—not an easy things for me—that the stories began to surface.
Did you travel to Germany to conduct interviews for this book? If so, what did you learn from these interviews?
I lived for three-plus months in Berlin during the spring and summer of 2013. But I spent over three years immersed in the history and literature of the city and World War II. I conducted no formal interviews for the book.
Parts of Here in Berlin are grimly humorous. I’m thinking of people like Horst Galbrech, the minor official in the Ministry of Culture whose superiors asked him to come up with a dance craze that would “give the West a (managed) run for its money.” Was this based on an actual incident? And, in conducting your research, did you learn of other stories that were surprisingly humorous or otherwise unconventionally revelatory?
For me, humor is the ultimate coping mechanism. How else could anyone survive difficult times? In that particular story, I was eager to lift the skirts of East Germany’s notorious grimness and show the ambition, sensuality, desperation, and exultation cohabiting the same terrain.
As a framing device, you used the character of a woman known only as the Visitor, a twice-divorced woman who returns to Germany after an ill-fated job in Frankfurt 31 years earlier. Why did you choose this framing device?
The Visitor became a way to guide readers around Berlin, to introduce them to parts of the city not in the tourist books, and to meet a few of its unlikely citizens. I felt that the Visitor’s initial disorientation then growing familiarity with the city might ultimately mirror the reader’s. That was my hope, anyway.
Several characters in this book are unapologetic about their complicity during World War II. One former Nazi soldier bluntly tells the Visitor, “We were soldiers. We followed orders.” And Anna Wildgrube, a lawyer, defends her job representing war criminals with, “a cog is not the machine.” And yet you also show acts of tenderness, such as the German seamen who were kind to the young night watchman Ernesto Cuadra, whom they had captured onto their submarine. One assumes from past histories of World War II (The Sorrow and the Pity is a notable example) that these stories are rooted in fact. What perspectives on the war, if any, surprised you?
Yes, I wanted to hold the gaze on complicity—something the Germans have done exceedingly well in recent years, if not right after the war—and try to get inside the possibility that we all, under the right circumstances, might become perpetrators. This acknowledgement, I believe, is the beginning of a deeper understanding of the how and why of violence and war. One of the biggest surprises for me was the extent to which German women supported the Nazi war effort, both at home and abroad.
Authors often write about the past to warn about the future. What do you hope readers will take away from the experience of reading your novel?
My hope is the same as it is whenever I pick up a novel: to have a long, engaging conversation with another sensibility that will take me to places that, in retrospect, will seem absolutely necessary to have gone.
What are you working on now?
Presently, I’m working on theater—an exciting new venture for me. My adaptation of King of Cuba, my sixth novel, will be produced at Central Works Theater in Berkeley next summer, starring solo performer Marga Gomez as Fidel Castro. I’m also adapting my first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, for the stage with producer/director Adrian Alea, and we are in conversation with the Public Theater about it.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Here in Berlin.
Author photo by Isabelle Selby