Book Review: “Die Berlinreise” by Hanns-Josef Ortheil

Earlier this year, German author Hanns-Josef Ortheil presented “Die Berlinreise” as well as a new version of his “Der Blaue Weg”. From both books, he read excerpts. These had his audience in stitches, or moved it deeply. So when I visited a local German library for a totally different book and stumbled upon “Die Berlinreise” (The Berlin trip) it was this novel I took home.

It took less than 36 hours to read it from start to finish. That it took so long, was due to Christmas parties, events, obligations which forced me to put the work down. Otherwise, this very special book would have been finished in one go – straight through the night.

This novel, as mr Ortheil’s sub-title calls it, dates from 1964. He wrote it when he was about 12 years old. It is based on notes he kept, while accompanying his father on a trip to Berlin. He later wrote a first-person travel-diary using his notes and handed the book to his father as a 1964 Christmas gift. Decades later, mr Ortheil came across this part novel, part travel-journal, part autobiography, part detective, part coming-of-age work again and it was published in January 2014.

Berlin ReiseThe book contains a few examples of the notes mr Ortheil wrote while in Berlin, as well as  postcards and pictures. The “voice” and “tone” are authentic and belong to a highly sensitive twelve-year-old observing events, grown-ups, Berlin. It is a refreshing and honest account. As mr Ortheil states in the introduction “Der kindliche Ton der Darstellung sollte vielmehr mit all seinen Eigentümlichkeiten, Fehlern und Kuriosa erhalten bleiben.

The first chapter describes the train journey to Berlin, on April 30th 1964. The boy’s parents are from the “Westerwald”. Shortly after getting married, they moved to Berlin as the father worked for the German railways. But the Second World War broke out and both parents have had traumatic experiences. In the case of the mother and wife, these were so severe, she will not visit Berlin and never read this book.

After the war, the family moved to Cologne. The father is now taking his son to Berlin to meet friends from before the war and to introduce Berlin to his son. Mr Ortheil starts on this journey with hardly any idea of his parents’ Berlin lives. By the end of the book, he will have uncovered quite a history.

The boy is very inquisitive and independent. As he can’t sleep, he walks through the train. He comes across someone from Berlin who hands him a sandwich and teaches him his first few words in Berlin Dialect. He joins his father and is taught more Berlin words, before the boy reads a Karl May novel and falls asleep.

Father and son arrive in West Berlin on the 1st of May, a holiday. Reinhold, father’s friend, collects them. It has been at least twenty years, since Reinhold and papa met last. The boy does not appreciate Reinhold much. He notices there is not only a great difference between dialects, but also in the way people behave in Berlin. People speak a lot, take time for breakfast, think everything in Berlin is best.

Reinhold drives the two to their B&B in an area where the boy’s father and mother lived. At the house, the boy strikes up a friendship with Hugo the family dog. Reinhold then takes the two for some sight-seeing and they end up listening to speeches. It is not that long ago that J.F. Kennedy visited Berlin and said “Ich bin ein Berliner”.

als der Bürgermeister von Berlin mit Namen Willy Brandt sprach, verstand ich wenigstens ein bischen. Willy Brandt sprach merkwürdig langsam und heiser und stossweise, als habe er … gerade eine Zigarre geraucht. Ich notierte in meinem Motizblock, dass Willy Brandt Seine Stimme erhoben hatte auch für die, die jenseits der Mauer und der Stacheldrahtverhaue zu leben gezwungen seien. … Dann aber sprach Bundeskanzler Erhard, und er sprach sehr tief und sehr undeutlich and wie durch die Nase und als hátte er vor seiner Rede nicht eine Zigarre, sonderen mindesten drei Zigarren geraucht. Ich notierte mir, dass er sagte, der Nationalsozialismus sei schrecklich gewesen un d alle Verantwortung liege jetzt bei der Sowjetunion. … (pp 45-46)
A few days later, father and son will board a guided tour through Berlin and visit East Berlin. They will even visit that part of the town on their own. In his introduction, the author mentions how he experienced a kind of nervousness and fear and how these feelings never left him whenever he later visited Berlin – even after the wall had long disappeared.

Father and son visit Reinhold and his wife, who still live in their apartment below the former home of Hanns-Josef’s parents. Reinhold and his wife hand them two suitcases which the boy’s mother left behind when she fled back to the Westerwald. Father and son discover her notebooks in which she wrote down bits and pieces about her life in Berlin.

It are these notebooks which will help Hanns-Josef to discover a few family secrets during this Berlin visit. He is able to retrace his mother’s steps through the neighbourhood with Hugo and even manages to find one of his mother’s Berlin friends. He uncovers family secrets kept from him, as well as secrets kept from husband and son by the mother.

The father and son visit a theatre, as the father wants his son to see an important play. The play revolves around Beckmann, a soldier. There is a direct link between the play and the father’s war experiences. Some of his experiences he shares with his son later on and a few the boy discovers through his mother’s notebooks.

Hanns-Josef is also taken to a concert by his father. At first, he does not fancy going much. But once the two hear Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sing Strauss’”Letzte Lieder” and Herbert von Karajan conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker, they walk out during the break. The music is so hauntingly beautiful, they do not want to hear the rest of the concert. Reinhold and his wife will later give a record of this music to the boy as a farewell gift.

Where everybody calls Hanns-Josef a boy at the start of the story and he signs postcards to his mother with “deine Bube”, towards the end of the book he seems to have grown. His father remarks he is nearly as tall as him. While observing his father sleeping the boy realises how old his father is. They will not visit Berlin again, for this was his father’s fare-well visit. The boy realises his father has tried to show him the Berlin of the past, the present and a possible future. A future which seems impossible to realise in 1964: a reunited Berlin with a single centre, a single heart.

This novel is a beautiful account containing not only hilarious descriptions by the boy. It is perceptive, sensitive, moving. What shines throughout the whole story, is not so much the childish voice but the love the three family members have for each other and the kindness of so many Berlin folks.

“Die Berlinreise, Roman eines Nachgeborenen”, Hanns-Josef Ortheil, published in German 2014, Luchterhand Literaturverlag, München; hard cover 284 pp.

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