Monday, 15 October 2012

Berlin brought to book

In his latest pre-WWII thriller, Mission to Paris, author Alan Furst's film star hero, Fredric Stahl, briefly checks into Berlin's Hotel Adlon. It seems an intrusion into the territory of another wartime character: Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther, who becomes the hotel's house detective in If the Dead Rise Not (2009).

Just over 80 years ago, the city was the setting for another detective, a child: Emil Tischbein. In Emil and the Detectives (1931), Erich Kästner's plucky hero teams up with local kids to retrieve his stolen money after Emil takes the train to Berlin. Kästner is as careful in his description of the boys' attempts to recover the cash as he is in his portrayal of the city:

'The noise was indescribable, and on the pavements crowds of people kept hurrying by. Out of every turning vans and lorries, trams and double-decker buses swarmed into the main thoroughfare. There were newspaper stands at every corner, with men shouting the latest headlines. Wherever Emil looked there were gay shop windows filled with flowers and fruit, books, clothes, fine silk underwear, gold watches and clocks. And all the buildings stretched up and up into the sky. So this was Berlin!'

The chase leads the gang from Friedrichstrasse station, along Kaiserdamm, Trautenaustrasse, to Nollendorfplatz. In a sentiment that might be replicated by Hans Fallada, Emil initially believes, 'No one has time for other people's troubles in a city. They've all troubles enough of their own.'

Writing just one year after Emil..., in Little Man, What Now? Fallada has 'little man' Pinneberg trudge the city's streets in a pattern also recognisable from Alfred Döblin's earlier Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), which was adapted as a 15-and-a-half hour film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1980. In the latter books it is not children who dominate the streets but the unemployed, hopeless and hucksters.

Pinneberg realises Berlin is not the place for him following an altercation with a policeman on Friedrichstrasse: 'Then Pinneberg went on his way, one step at a time, through Berlin. But nowhere was completely dark, and going past policemen was particularly difficult.'

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