Berlin is a wonderful city, and I am not only saying this because I have an unhealthy Brezel addiction, facilitated by my best friend who lives there. I have been to Berlin five times now, and it was the first place that I ever travelled to outside of Bulgaria, so it holds a certain esteemed place in my heart. It feels familiar, and yet there’s always something to make it just a little bit different from the previous time (and of course, looking for new Brezel fillings to try also helps).
My most recent foray was in June, in part to catch an Angus & Julia Stone concert, in part to finally see Berlin in the summer (and naturally, it rained all throughout!) With a concert in Neukölnn and a bookshop in Kreuzberg, I spent a considerable amount of time on the U7. Now, I confess that Another Country was not a random discovery – I deliberately picked it among the results of an Internet search, which informed me that in 2010, Lonely Planet had placed it in the top 10 bookshops in the world.
The inside, though, surpassed my expectations of quirky/alternative/hipster. I have seen the inside of quite a few unusual second-hand bookshops, but this one was on a completely different level. You could buy beer from a fridge to sip on whilst looking around. Packages of toast bread randomly decorated the place. A sort of back room sported crates and a slightly eerie figurine (as pictured). Downstairs was the domain of more books (of course!), but it also served as a space where events and meetings are occasionally held. It is an English-language bookshop, and you can borrow some of the books for a price, and then get it partly refunded when/if you return it. The owner is Sophia, a British expat who changed gender around 2008/9; throughout my visit, she sat behind the counter, intently listening to a young American talking about his struggles in Berlin. I felt as if I had stepped into a film – anything could happen.
And it did happen. I discovered Primo Levi’s short stories. Again, I wish I could have read them in Italian, but alas. The foreword notes that Levi is primarily known for his Holocaust writings, whereas the ones in A Tranquil Star venture into other topics. These stories are exquisite, and they will bring particular pleasure to those who, like me, cherish ambiguity, multiple meanings, and are curious about readers’ response to fiction. In the foreword, Levi is quoted: “In my opinion, a story has as many meanings as there are keys in which it can be read, and so all interpretations are true, in fact the more interpretations a story can give, the more ambiguous it is.” A man after my own heart…
Levi was a chemist and this influence is more or less obvious in stories like “The Magic Paint” and “The Molecule’s Defiance,” but, of course, they reach beyond the specificity of chemical make-up. There is something slightly dystopian about them, and “Knall”, with its strange killing contraption, reminded me of both Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World.
“In the Park,” a story about a self-contained ‘village’ where fictional characters live, best exemplifies why Levi’s style appeals to me: he combines an exciting plot with expressive words. The story is so particular and alive with details that it sucks you right in, not just in that specific little world, but in anything Levi might have ever written. It is the sophistication of inventiveness that charms, with its seemingly effortless meticulousness – in a way that is less verbose than the craftsman on my pedestal, Nabokov, but equally captivating.
My two personal favourites are “The Fugitive,” in which a poem escapes from a piece of paper despite the poet’s best efforts to literally pin it down, and “The Girl in The Book”. This latter story charmed my thoughts away from the plot, and directed them beyond, to my own love for fiction, for its ambiguity and the life it can acquire on its own, irrespective of original inspiration. A woman’s confrontation with the fictionalised portrait of her youth struck me as both tragic and poignantly beautiful. To hear yourself as the construction of someone else’s mind and to juxtapose this with the subjective experience of your own life, inseverable and inalienable, could quite possibly create a rift, filled with sadness, a feeling of failed correspondence. Such regrets may remain couched in other words, less to the point, and so will be felt even more acutely. The sentences we concoct, not just in fiction, but also during our daily errands, are the bits and pieces which help erect someone else’s (sense of) self. Some would say life is always more real than fiction; some that fiction makes life appear more beautiful than it is. “You choose,” is what Levi’s story offers, before it shows that spillages between our decisive, programmatic worlds could always break through, break us, all of a sudden.