Memories Lost, Reechoed, Acquired

This week I inadvertently went back to myself a ten years ago through film and book. To memories I have, to memories I learnt and to memories that left me. 


It’s been nearly a decide since I read Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises. When Hemingway came up in conversation during the week, and I defended The Old Man and the Sea, and look over at my bookshelf, and opened the only book of his there, Fiesta, I remembered nothing. Sure, there were delicate imprints of Paris and Pamplona, but anything past the most geographic of details was gone. Perhaps I had not grown out of the intense, time-condensed reading of literature at university, perhaps I had been shocked by its casual anti-Semitism, perhaps I hated those indolent self-indulgent Americans and English aristocrats. Or maybe it was the style: at the time, I was under the spell of one of my favourite writers and fellow Modernist, Thomas Mann, whose complex curated sentences are the closest I feel you can come to scuba-diving in prose—between each breath, it seems you’ve seen the whole world. Hemingway had prose more like coloured blasts of light and felt nothing like this. Today this non-causal itinerancy seemed subficial, not superficial, and the prose crackled within me in the image-upon-image descriptions of travel across Navarre, or the dialogue of Frances’s calculating takedown in Paris or the drunken conversations in Pamplona.

But no matter the crackle, no sentences ever echoed through my memory—whatever I read had been long forgotten. 


The echoes came later in the week, when I watched Oskar Roehler’s film from 2000, No Place to Go (its German name, Die Unberührbare, the untouchable, is far better). I must have last seen it at university. I loved it at the time—and love it still in the delicious hypocrisy of Hanna Flanders, a West German “communist” novelist, who shops at Dior, who has a minimalist apartment in Munich with stylishly place photos of Lenin writing, of Lenin in Red Square, whose artifice falls apart with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Who knows if they were quotations I’d learnt for an exam, but there were phrases that had an electric sting and a resonance, as though they’d found the shadow of their twin deep within me. There is a scene towards the end of the film, where Hanna sits motionless and looks out onto the moving pedestrians of Odeonsplatz in Munich, that made me gasp at the memory. There’s the expanse of Berlin sky at sunset called its own reimaginings of sunsets that—sitting in Cambridge and looking back on Berlin—I must have remembered from evening commutes on the U-Bahn.


Commuting and motion is one of the motifs of Walther Ruttman’s 1927 film, Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, a film I’d heard a lot about studying German film, but had not seen until this week. I imagine that it’s been called a meditation on the city; but to me, with its sometimes urgent music and doors opening, doors closing, trains arriving and leaving stations, bread coming out of an oven, a roller coaster on its tracks, washed dishes, actors being applauded, all without the safety blanket of narrative, it felt more like a visual workout. And the city I lived in appears both recognized and unrecognizable. Trains still string themselves through the city on elevated tracks, some buildings have the same blank façades, but they don’t swarm around the cathedral like that, the people don’t crush around the trams in the same way. The images made the memories emerge, but distorted as if through a fairground mirror, where I recognized the memory because I knew this was the same place on the map where they’d been created. But nearly 90 years on, is the city, or any city, the same? With just image and no context, might I have imagined them scenes in Hamburg or Vienna or Bucharest? Do cities just sit on the same geographies, while we rely on a collage of memories to make them our own?


My [redacted] is enough for business transactions, for humour: I say what the language wants, not what I want. Her laughter. I am the victim of my small vocabulary.

Homo faber, Max Frisch

Anyone who knows me will know I speak more than a couple of languages. Living as a foreigner in Brazil, this comes up most days and it often doesn’t take long for someone to ask me how it is I speak Portuguese “so well”. It’s a mystery to me, as much as to them[1]. This post might sound from a boastful enumerator, but I hope it doesn’t: I’m far more an embarrassed tallier.

Language is a landscape—and each one is different.

Mountains upon mountains  (Jardín, Colombia)

Mountains upon mountains
(Jardín, Colombia)

There’s one I used to speak, can no longer understand, that’s like a faded winter leaf: I can remember words, no meanings, but the intricate mathematical grammar hangs in its skeletal lace. Another sits in a jar of formaldehyde.

Another one, Russian, I worked in once and read in sometimes, but never without a dictionary for half the words. It feels like a misty hillside with a plain below where the slow-blown air sometimes clears and sometimes closes in. Or perhaps it’s like that scene towards the end of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, staring out over a snowy Breughelian vista.

The ones I feel I speak best, the irony and minor keys of German or arid, intricate, yet lush Spanish, are so much topographical, like a Caspar David Friedrich painting or the early sun over the Colombian cordillera, where ridge upon green ridge stretches to the horizon with the regularity and crunch of collapsing Toblerones.

Portuguese is different: I have a compass and a car, I am a navigator and have travelled far, but I know I’m on a wide savannah, where half my made-good turns were flukes.

Perhaps it’s familiarity and experience, perhaps it’s the mind-bending visions that come from literature, perhaps I have a synesthetic perception of these things. Or maybe it’s the range of lived emotion that spreads these maps of altitude: the most important relationships of my life (family, friends, lovers, partners) have been in English, German, Spanish. These are the languages that have made me ecstatic, made me cry. Will the same happen with Portuguese? Perhaps, or maybe it will always be a language on the flatlands, where words start to fade as soon as they’re touched and turn into gabbling shadows that sound, at a distance, like English, German or Spanish.

[1] The biggest mystery of all is how some people hear an accent from Portugal, where I’ve not been for 15 years and where I’ve never spoken Portuguese.

The cordillera(Somewhere over Paisalandia)

The cordillera
(Somewhere over Paisalandia)

Spots of Time or Tricks of Memory in Leipzig

By Rob Packer

We left Berlin on the knife-edge of a summer’s day. The heat had built up for days and the air had a tang, as if the flap of a butterfly’s wing would bring the summer crashing down.

As we drove south across the plains of Brandenburg and Saxony, the blue skies greyed and between Wittenberg and Leipzig, a curtain of darkness had been drawn across the Autobahn. At some point my mother—this part of the trip was more pilgrimage than holiday for her—had put the ‘Goldberg Variations’ on the car stereo and they were our soundtrack as we drove who knows how many times around Leipzig, asking for directions: they kein Englisch, we kein Deutsch. The butterfly had flapped its wings and the city had become a labyrinth.

Had I understood the butterfly effect then, I would have imagined its wing-flapping in Bosnia. That summer, Bosnia was on all our minds as the war intensified and whispers of the horror of Srebrenica filtered out barely reaching us. Just six years after the end of communism, parts of Europe were tearing themselves apart as we watched powerlessly; peaceful areas seemed—at least from a Westerner’s perspective—part hopeless grey morass, part our continent’s new frontier. To me it also said future: it was the summer before I was to start German and Russian at school which, I imagined, would lead to me discovering my lost Romanian heritage—more about that in this blog—although life ultimately turned out very differently.

Seventeen years later these memories seemed all but disappeared, as I stepped into a honey-scented spring evening at Leipzig’s steel and glass airport and took the train to its enormous shop-filled station. In the centre the next day, memories did start to come back, but more as hazes of remembered images than real memory.

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Overcoming a Literary Nemesis: Berlin Alexanderplatz

By Rob Packer

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin

Reading tics and habits develop over time, but a lot of mine came from studying German literature at university. Novels, plays, secondary literature, late-night essay-writing, rowing almost daily, college bar, going out, friends, drinks, procrastinating, you get the picture. Ten years ago the best place to cut corners seemed to be with short texts: plays and novellas were in, novels were out. This nascent fear was only confirmed when a bout of bad planning meant I read the 800-odd pages of Buddenbrooks one rainy weekend (don’t try this at home, kids!). Thomas Mann deserved more and—at a more leisurely pace—is now one of my absolute favourite writers. What hasn’t changed is the irrational fear of starting long, or “hard”, novels. I flick the book’s pages, wince at the number of pages, a commitment-phobe’s Pavlovian shudder runs down my spine, the book is back on the shelf, I’m reading something else before I know what’s happened and the tome sits on my bookshelf mocking me. One of these long-time nemeses is, or was, Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz—admittedly, not that long, just with a reputation for being difficult. It is, in a word, incredible.

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The Joy of Anonymity: The Bode-Museum

By Rob Packer

We were followed by the sound of jangling keys. From room to room the doors were locked behind us and another dark uniform stood there by the door, fingers on keys, up and down, up and down, metal against metal, kerchink, kerchink. As we stopped to examine a Cranachian gruesomeness of hell, the metronome of the keychain picked up from adagio to andante. I could feel eyes focusing on the back of my head, whispered conversations in German and the kerchink kerchink of the keys. Didn’t we know they were closing soon?

The next time I was in Berlin it was 1998 and the Bode-Museum had closed for its decade of renovation. Living in Berlin one midsummer night, a wisp of daylight in the northern sky, I remember that blank neo-Baroque façade rising triangularly sheer out of the Spree, its moat, bridges connecting it to the river’s other banks, cut off by the railway line from the rest of the island’s museums. The Bode-Museum would forever recall that certain socialist officiousness that I remembered from that first foray into East Berlin, one sweltering summer afternoon in 1995. (My other, equally vivid, memory of that afternoon was on Alexanderplatz, where a drunk decided that my grandfather’s Ich spreche kein Deutsch, “I don’t speak German”, was a contradiction.)

Although the Bode-Museum reopened in 2006, I hadn’t got around to visiting until last month. Where once key chains had marked the hours, the museum today is bright spacious—and almost deserted—galleries of an amazing range of European (mostly religious) sculpture and Byzantine art. Rather than the headlong dash around enormous galleries to dutifully see famous painter after famous painter (I think we’re all guilty of this), the mostly anonymous sculptors here is actually quite refreshing: you can really concentrate on the aesthetics of these lifelike (or sometimes not so lifelike) pieces.

Take a look at the photos and judge for yourself.

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A Clash of Influences: Leipzig’s Völkerschlachtdenkmal

By Rob Packer

It doesn’t happen very often—or indeed, ever—that you go somewhere and think “Wow, this place is exactly how I’d mix Ancient Egypt, Star Wars, Tolkien and Heinrich Heine!” The Völkerschlachtdenkmal, the memorial to the 1813 Battle of Leipzig, in a suburban park is just that kind of place.

My knowledge of the Napoleonic Wars has always been a bit patchy: history-teaching in British schools leaves centuries-wide chasms in historical knowledge (1688 to 1914 is just the most scandalous gap) and my university studies of German history started around 1815. It’s only par for the course to find things out that I really should have known; and unless we’re talking about something in War and Peace, Childe Harold or Goya—or the odd reference to Nelson or Wellington—there’s a high chance of it. The Battle of Leipzig (no Tolstoy, no Byron, no Goya, no British) is just one of those.

The battle involved 600,000 soldiers, of whom at least 80,000 died, which makes it (thanks Wikipedia) the largest European battle prior to the First World War. This more than lives up to its standard name in German, the apocalyptic-sounding Völkerschlacht—the unnuanced English translation is the Battle of the Nations.

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Spring in Germany

By Rob Packer

A chestnut candle.

The rhythm of the seasons is different everywhere and more used to more gradual changes in seasons, the continental shifts in Germany seemed shockingly drastic. After an Easter weekend spent in Munich, I remember my first day of cycling to work, turning left into a Schöneberg backstreet and stopping my bike. I’d taken a wrong turning. But had I? Where? I retraced the route in my mind: it seemed right. But the road looked nothing like what was here last week. The light was different: greener, viscous, darker. But no; the five-storey houses and the parked cars were the same. I carried on cycling and then realized. Spring had come to Berlin like an unexpected wave sprays you on the beach, and as suddenly as the electric storms that would clash without warning over the city in the summer to come.

Nearly ten years later, I stepped off a plane in Leipzig into an evening that smelled of honey. There might have been a whiff of kerosene in the bouquet, but suddenly time had concertinaed upon me. In two hours, I’d travelled forward in seasons from a blustery London airport to a balmy Leipzig spring; but also back in time to that post-Easter morning in Berlin and also back 17 years to my first—and only other—time in Leipzig. My timing was perfect to meet the seasons.

I’ll write more about Leipzig and Berlin soon, but here are some photos that I hope will convince you that Germany and spring really do go together—and not just in a song from The Producers.

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By Rob Packer

Just across Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz from the Volksbühne is Kino Babylon. They win points with silent films and their CinemAperitivo season: a Sunday afternoon Italian film followed by a traditional Italian aperitif.

The Volksbühne

By Rob Packer

The Volksbühne

„Wir freuen uns auf Ihren Besuch und wünschen Ihnen einen anregenden Abend“
Email sign-off, Volksbühne Berlin

If you could timetravel, where would you go? I saw this question on the train to the airport (on Mediaeval Musing’s excellent blog). My answers were definitive and immediate: Justinian’s Constantinople, pre-Conquest Tenochtitlán, Weimar Berlin. On a tram in Leipzig the next day, I heard the excellent BBC documentary, “Europe: The Art of Austerity”*, on artistic responses to 1930’s austerity in London, Paris and Berlin, where it looked at Brecht, Döblin and others (listen online or on podcast). A few days after that on a Prenzlauer Berg terrace, I clapped open Zitty, the Berlin listings magazine, and saw two Brecht Lehrstücke on the next day at the Volksbühne. If that isn’t a sign, what is? Tickets were booked within hours. And when I read the email sign-off, wishing me a stimulating (anregend) evening—rather than the normal pleasant (angenehm) one—I knew they were telling the truth.

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Berlin mon amour

By Rob Packer

I will shortly be in Berlin, the best city I’ve ever lived. The hardest part of the packing is never the clothes: it’s the reading material: not too heavy, not too light, room for impulse buys. I go to the bookshelf, blow the dust off an unread weighty tome, feel it in my hand, flick the pages, pick another, compare them, put them both back, get a different one out, put that back and then, and then decide.

Maybe re-read Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus (my favourite novel of the 20th century alongside The Trial and 100 Years of Solitude)? Maybe Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina? Maybe something by Thomas Bernhard? But no, none of these made the end cut.

My selections are:

  • Orlando by Virgina Woolf: I was reading it already and Orlando’s not even switched genders yet.
  • Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin: It’s reputation precedes it and it’s sometimes compared with Ulysses (i.e. not holiday reading), but I’ve wanted to read it since I lived in Berlin (nearly ten years ago, folks) and difficulty aside, there is, quite frankly, no way I’d ever get around to reading this in Brazil.

Of course, there’s a half-decent chance that Berlin Alexanderplatz will come back unread and that I’ll have been waylaid by other goodies from German bookshops.

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