Stephens Gerard Malone, I Still Have a Suitcase in Berlin (Random House Canada, 319 pages, $32.95 Cdn., 2008)
In Berlin you’ll find more monuments to the catastrophes of history than in any other city in Europe. Given German history, I suppose that’s appropriate.
This spring, civic officials unveiled the city’s latest memorial. Located at the edge of the Tiergarten, Berlin’s central park, it’s right across the road from one of the German capitol’s largest memorials, a field of more than a thousand tombstone-like dark-gray stelae spread over 5 undulating hectares, honouring the memory of the 6 million European Jews murdered during the Nazi Holocaust of World War II. A lot of people in Berlin think the Peter Eisenman-designed Holocaust Memorial is a bit much: too big, too insistent, too loud.
The new memorial, which remembers the experiences of homosexuals during the same Nazi era, when thousands of gay men were arrested, sometimes castrated, and often sent to concentration camps where many of them died, is a more modest affair. It consists of a sloping 4-metre-high concrete box that deliberately but politely echoes the vast field of slabs across the street. The no-frills mausoleum-like container, designed by a Berlin-based Scandinavian gay artistic duo, Michael Elmgreen and Ingmar Dragset, includes a small window that lets adult visitors look in and see a 90-second film loop (shot by Danish director Thomas Vinterburg) of two young men kissing. Although some viewers have complained that the installation trivializes gay suffering, local art critics (and yours truly) have praised it for its elegance, wit, and its understated way of making its historical point.
How to make an historical point or portrait, and how to judge history (and its monuments) is the formidable task Canadian writer Stephens Gerard Malone sets for himself (and yes, his slightly unusual first name does make his tripled-barrelled moniker sound like a law firm). Nova Scotia-based Malone’s historical, gay-subthemed novel about Berlin in the 1930s, I Still Have a Suitcase in Berlin, sheds a gruesome light on why, more than a half-century later, there are memorials to Jewish victims of the Holocaust as well as to Nazi-persecuted homosexuals.
The protagonist of Malone’s tale, Michael Renner, a German-Canadian working-class 25-year-old living in Halifax during the depths of the 1930s Depression, is shipped off to Berlin to attend to his dying paternal grandmother. In short order, through his German relatives, the politically and sexually very naïve Canadian gains entrée to middle-class Nazi circles. Simultaneously, an assortment of friends introduce Renner to Berlin noir’s notorious sexual and artistic demimonde. The two worlds overlap at the edge of the orgy. For an impressionable young man fresh from Halifax harbour, the combination is volatile, and ultimately lethal for almost everybody involved.
The book’s title is taken from that of a post-World War II German ballad made popular by Marlene Dietrich, a song of nostalgic fondness for her hometown (that’s why she keeps “a suitcase in Berlin”), but Malone’s prose, while serviceable, doesn’t exactly sing. The novelist gets credit for his recreation of swastika-bedecked Berlin in the 1930s, but the ever-darkening set is peopled with stock characters who seldom come to life: various “good Germans” nastily scrambling up the Nazi ladder; a military intelligence lieutenant, at once civilized and sadistic; a male queen bee named Tristan who runs a vast underground bunker-palace of decadence; and Jan, an elusive and beautiful teenaged rent-boy from the streets. They all perform what feel like small-screen turns in a made-for-TV melodrama.
The real problem is Malone’s vapid main character, Michael Renner. Malone wants to show us how a socially passive, not particularly thoughtful, but deeply closeted young gay man can drift into Nazi evil, a loveless semi-arranged marriage, fatherhood, and even inarticulate forbidden love. The trouble is that Renner is neither very interesting or sympathetic as he unreflectively helps to make the Nazi trains run on time–trains that will ultimately carry Jews, political dissidents, homosexuals and many others to the death camps. That Renner remains in dimly-understood sexual denial while everyone around him seems to instantly recognize his same-sex desires doesn’t help.
Novels with dull or uninteresting lead characters have always slightly baffled me. But sometimes they work. In The Stranger, for example, the obliviousness of Albert Camus’s unremarkable Algerian narrator, Meursault, is a large part of the book’s point. Ultimately, we sympathise with his “primitive” emotions, his helplessness as he wriggles and eventually is resigned to the social spider web that condemns him. Or take Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, where “Christopher,” a version of Isherwood himself, is intentionally presented to us as a cipher, but a cipher who unreliably declares, “I am a camera,” and then proceeds to frame the scene with startling accuracy. Of course, in both instances, the brilliance of the writing more than alleviates the character flaws of the author’s creations.
The concluding years of Malone’s decade-long story, in bomb-blitzed wartime Berlin and with Renner on the run, is a genuine and harrowing reminder of what human beings did. One can still visit the former concentration camp–today a memorial site–at Sachsenhausen, just outside of Berlin, and conjure up the ghosts of inhumanity. The horror of Malone’s Suitcase in Berlin is all-too-believable, but the novel is less so, undercut as it is by the melodramatic tying up of every loose end in the unravelled yarn.
Beyond its moments of poignancy and faltering, Malone’s book raises interesting questions about the multiple literary genres he’s probing. The point of historical novels, I suppose, is to tell us something about what it felt like at another time, something that history can’t quite tell us. I think Malone’s street-level story of the era at least partially succeeds in that aim. He’s not the first, of course, to cover the territory. Perhaps the most engaging of such efforts is Philip Kerr’s historical detective-novel trilogy, Berlin Noir (1991), also set in 1930s and 40s Berlin, while Joseph Kanon’s The Good German (2001) does similar duty for the immediate post-war period in Berlin.
Malone’s novel also echoes a trend in recent gay-themed fiction. In what is today almost a “post-gay” period, given that many issues of gay identity, legal rights and even public acceptance of homosexuality have been largely resolved, writers have turned to gay history for their subject matter. Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (the 2005 Booker Prize winner), Colm Toibin’s The Master (a 2004 novel about novelist Henry James) and Jamie O’Neil’s vibrantly Joycean saga of Irish gay history, At Swim, Two Boys (2001), have all delved into the same-sex past. Malone joins that company, though his writing is hardly of the same first-rank as that of the others I’ve named.
However, there’s a more telling comparison that must be made, even though it doesn’t favour any contemporary author, including Malone. My mention above of Christopher Isherwood wasn’t inadvertent. If you want a literary account of Berlin in the 1930s, the first bookshelf to go to is the one containing the works of Isherwood, who was on the spot when it all happened. In Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935), Goodbye to Berlin (1939), Down There on a Visit (1961), and the memoir Christopher and His Kind (1976), Isherwood indelibly recorded the chill of the impending Nazi doom, as well as capturing the frisson of the “Life is a Cabaret” culture, and the restless currents of homoerotic attraction. It’s hard to see how anyone could better such masterpieces. Certainly, Malone’s attempt doesn’t come close.
These days, if you’re as nostalgically fond of Berlin as Marlene Dietrich was, it’s probably a good idea not only to keep “a suitcase in Berlin” but, given the uncertainties of the real-estate market, to keep an apartment there as well. You’ll want some shelter from the wreckage of history.
Vancouver, July 31, 2008. Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C., and has lived part-time in Berlin since 1990. He’s the author of, among other books, Then We Take Berlin: Stories from the Other Side of Europe (Knopf Canada, 1995). An earlier version of this review appeared in The Globe and Mail.