Rating 4 stars
Paul Scraton’s Built on Sand is a fictional biography of the city he has made his home. Berlin is a city that I’ve only visited once but I was fascinated by the way it wears its past on its streets and buildings. I’ve read other books set in Berlin, in the lead up to and during the Second World War, books which make the place as much a character in their storytelling as the people. Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin and Mr Norris Changes Trains, the anonymous diary A Woman in Berlin and Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin all gave me a sense of knowing Berlin, some before I’d even travelled there.
My husband worked there briefly just before we got married and had explored some interesting places around the city. Together we went to Treptower Park, the Bauhaus, Prater Garden, the site of the Nazi HQ razed to the ground, Alexanderplatz, the memorial pink triangle at Nollendorfplatz U-bahn station, other places whose names I can’t recall, east and west of where the Wall once ran. What we learned on our trip, and what is borne out in Scraton’s book, is that Berlin is a walking city. It pays to walk from place to place because the city’s past is all around you.
The novel is part coming of age story, part psychogeography, seen through the friendships of the unnamed narrator, who has made Berlin his home. Those friendships are rooted in place, both Berlin locations and places further afield. We learn a little about the narrator himself, but his focus is mainly on the people he meets, the places they inhabit, and the histories behind both. There’s a gentle rhythm to the telling of the stories that feels melancholy. People always seem to be leaving, or have conflict in their past that has brought them to where they are now. The people share characteristics with the city in many ways. They haunt each other’s memories.
The story starts with a young woman, Annika, who makes limited edition maps that plot specific histories of Berlin, sometimes the geographies link to individuals, sometimes to moments in time, sometimes to cultural or political movements. She plots their routes by walking them. There is one map that links to her friendship with K, a character who is the narrator’s girlfriend. Annika and K are the only people who own copies of this map. By the end of the first chapter, I wanted Annika’s maps to be real. I wanted to see the geographies she had compiled and learn more about Berlin through them. The taste of them that Scraton gives was tantalising on my reading tongue. I checked the back of the book – there’s a further reading list in the acknowledgements that I’ll be mining later.
The widow of another of the narrator’s friends walks the city from the hospice where her husband Otto has just died back to the former GDR apartment block that was their home together for more than forty years. She calls one of Otto’s friends, triggering his memories of growing up in East Berlin. Here Scraton reveals the tensions between childhood friends that developed in an adulthood dictated by the state. Otto became a school teacher, Konrad a dissident painter, and Markus, the friend Otto’s widow calls, a member of the Stasi. Their local pub is the site of their memories, a pub unchanged by the reunification of the city or by the retired West German policeman who takes it on.
The narrator and K attend Otto’s funeral and wake, invited by Markus, and they invite a third friend, Boris. Boris is from the former Yugoslavia, a Croatian on his mother’s side, a Slovenian on his father’s. “We were all from the same place,” he says, “and then we weren’t.” Boris and the narrator first meet on a Croatian island as teenagers. Boris eventually, by a circuitous route, reaches Berlin where he plans to become a filmmaker. It’s Boris who brings the narrator to Berlin, signifying that this is a city for immigrants to call home, that there is a place for everyone there. Boris, the narrator and their flatmate Tomas live in a crumbling apartment block in the east of the city. It’s a building with nineteenth century origins, Second World War scars and GDR neglect in its fabric.
Gradually, we learn that the book’s narrator runs walking tours of the city, revealing its history to new residents. He reminded me of my mum’s friends who, when they lived in Brussels, one working as a researcher for a Dutch SP MEP the other for a Labour MEP, they ran tours of the Marais district of Brussels with their English Fox Terrier, sharing a socialist viewpoint of this administrative capital of Europe’s grand capitalist project. On these tours they made new friends and built a community of their own. Scraton’s narrator does a similar thing, collecting Berlin residents and their memories as he travels the city. These are people with their own connections to the city, often bringing the baggage of family history with them and having to forge their own relationship with Berlin around that emotional weight.
Part of that family history of course includes the Holocaust. Scraton allows his book to bear powerful testimony to that dark moment in German history, through the brass stumblestones laid in pavements outside houses where transported and murdered Jewish people used to live and the lists of the transports that left platform 17 at Grunewald station for the concentration camps, but also through the memories of second and third generation returnees to Berlin, on both sides of the horror. The relatives of those who didn’t get out in time and the relatives of those who did nothing to prevent the horror happening. Scraton refers to the change in mood and politics in recent years, as fewer people who lived through the Second World War remain to bear direct witness, as some at least among those who weren’t there seek to deny that the Holocaust happened. It is something that weighs on my mind, this need to remember and the worry that we will eventually forget, particularly in the current political climate.
But Scraton also reminds that the best way to honour the dead is to live in love. His narrator and K take a trip to Devil’s Lake from Grunewald station, and without stating the obvious, with the simplicity of a kiss, Scraton brings the love of two people to the fore. It was a moment that I found beautiful. Other passages in the book build on the idea that, if you have love, things will be okay. From displaced people choosing to love their new home over bitterness about losing their homeland, to Holocaust survivors returning to their home town after the Second World War and living in love and forgiveness, and via the characters who made choices between love of personal freedom and love of the political project that the GDR represented to them, the people in this novel show that love as much as memory is what makes a happy life. Of those whose lives are less happy, it is the people who lose love and allow the weight of past memories to hold them locked in frustration. Their twisted love for the past lies at the heart of the rise of right wing extremism.
Characters such as Annika, Boris and Charlotte return at uncommon intervals throughout the novel, their stories juxtaposed with the narrator’s own experience of Berlin, and his own memory building. It makes the book a reflective read, quite ponderous in tone. I imagine that it works well read aloud. It felt to me like the narrator was reading to me, rather than that I was there in the action with him. I liked that. It was something different to what I usually read. Having said that, though, it did put me in mind of other things I have read. There are hints of Isherwood, naturally, and a flavour of Sebald, although I have only read Vertigo so far by him, as well as similarities to both the fiction and nonfiction work that Tom Cox has produced in recent years. It’s a thoughtful literature that dwells more deeply on the meanings behind behaviours and how the environment, both built and natural, can influence our behaviour without us knowing it. In the case of Sebald, it’s a literature that describes the power that local legend can have on the mind, causing hallucinations. Scraton includes similar things in Built on Sand, with a couple of the characters doubting experiences they believe they have had. More tenuous is the link to Olivia Laing’s exploration of New York through the lives of the artists who were influenced by as well as an influence on their environment. Laing, I would say, fits more in the mould of the flâneur than she does the psychogeographer, wandering as she does in the role of detached observer. Scraton is definitely more engaged with the environment his characters inhabit, and is thus a psychogeographer.
Scraton’s book is psychogeography both in the sense of Debord’s original definition, where it is a conscious study of how the geographical environment impacts on the emotions and behaviour of people, and in the more contemporary sense of an approach to place that takes the walker away from the well trodden routes and off into new experiences of the urban landscape.
Thinking about the flâneur versus the psychogeographer made me wonder where I fit in. I have had a love of the built environment since I was a child and would irritate the rest of my family on shopping trips to Manchester by always having my neck craned to look at the buildings, those palaces of industrialism, that line the streets. As a teenager, I became interested in how those buildings represented the people who made Manchester, what it said about them and their combined private and civic spirit. As an adult, my eye has been drawn to the modernist and the brutalist architecture of the city. It has always been aesthetic, though, my interest in the buildings that surround me. I don’t think I have ever consciously thought about how those buildings and the activities that have happened in them over the years of their existence impact the city today and who I am in relation to the city. Perhaps I should do more of that.
I was still on holiday in Laugharne as I read Built on Sand, but at times it felt as though I was on holiday in Berlin, listening to Scraton’s narrator in his local bar telling me tales of this city reclaimed from swampland. The sense of being in two places at once made me reflect on the book I read previously to this one. In Aeronwy Thomas’s memoir, she talks about how her father Dylan believed that he was only capable of writing when he was in Laugharne, and he feared relocating to other cities and countries. Laugharne was his hiding place, his comfort and his inspiration. It made me think about how place can have more than one meaning, and about how the places I have lived in have influenced me. I’ve lived in places that made me ill, that disrupted my sense of self, that I longed to escape from. I’ve also lived in places where I felt instantly at home, among people who were welcoming but not overbearing. I currently live in a suburb of the city I dreamed of being my home as a child. I expect that I will be here for a while, but you never can tell.
I really enjoyed Built on Sand. I need to plan a return trip to Berlin, now.