Wladimir Kaminer: Russian Disco
I love Berlin. It is a city of constant surprises, though not all of them are necessarily pleasant. For instance, you can walk out of the luxurious KaDeWe department store in Schoeneberg and within seconds be confronted by a window display for an S&M fetish shop. But if you bear in mind you are in the same streets where Christopher Isherwood created Sally Bowles and the world of Cabaret you’ll just grin and say “that’s Berlin”.
This is the city celebrated by Wladimir Kaminer in Russian Disco, a collection of wry short narratives. They are not necessarily stories; we are meant to embrace them as true accounts. The English edition of his book gives no indication of the origins of the pithy, succinct observations contained within its covers. All we learn of the origins of the book is that Kaminer was born in 1967 in Moscow and emigrated to Berlin in 1990, where he still lives and writes in German. He has since written a number of books including Military Music and My Caucasian Mother-in-Law. As it happened Kaminer arrived in the East Berlin of the German Democratic Republic and within months found himself living in a Berlin without the Wall. This profound change in his circumstances underlies much of what he writes about here.
The first narrative, “Russians in Berlin”, sets the scene for the craziness he comes to witness. He recounts how he travelled to Berlin on a 96 rouble train fare because he’d heard that Jews were welcome there. He was quickly given an identity card and established himself among the fifth wave of Russian emigrants. His sense of humour is detectable in his description of the second wave “between 1941 and 1945” — that includes Russians forced to labour for the Nazi regime as well as the invading Red Army.
In the last piece in the book, “Why I still haven’t applied for German citizenship”, Kaminer, if we are to believe him, states that he came to Berlin in 1990 without any reason. His wife claims they moved to Berlin for the fun of it, “to see what it was like”. Neither version, though, seemed appropriate to put on a form applying for German citizenship that asked Kaminer to state why he had decided to emigrate to Germany. A comedy of errors with the form, culminating in it falling into a “sopping ditch” being dug by Vietnamese emigrants searching for their buried contraband cigarettes, keeps him from completing his application.
What is immediately obvious in reading the stories in Russian Disco is that they were not written to be short chapters of a book. Some details repeat and characters overlap in the manner of a discontinuous narrative, which in many ways this collection of stories is. In fact, they were written for publication in newspapers or for performance. The book was published in Germany in 2000 (2002 in English), following Kaminer’s rise to fame as a performance artist and after he had organised an improvised dance event, Russian Disco, at Kaffee Burger in Berlin. This event still regularly takes place.
The title piece of the book begins with the phrase ”A Full Eyewitness Account by the Organiser” and the third person narrative gives some idea of the anarchy and chaos of that first event, “six hours of wild dancing”, and an utterly exhausted team of DJs. Kaminer doesn’t, but others have described the first Russian Disco as a celebration of polka-punk, klezmer-ska and balalaika-rock, the sort of lunacy I expect to walk into when I am in Berlin, and which invariably I do. That is what makes Berlin unique: around every corner people are seriously occupied in activities which would be crazy anywhere else but are perfectly normal in Berlin.
The recount of the Russian Disco is an exception being in third person. Most of the other works are written in first person, with Kaminer’s blend of irony and naivety offering a special viewpoint as well as a constantly charming voice. There is also an almost absurd quality to so much of the book, such as when Kaminer takes his mother to a late night gay bar and sees his counsellor from the job centre sitting in the bar with a young Thai man on his lap. This book provides a humorous but insightful view of Berlin adjusting to its new unified status through the eyes of a sympathetic, admiring foreigner.
Kaminer, Wladimir: Russian Disco: Tales Of Everyday Lunacy On The Streets Of Berlin / translated by Michael Huise. - Random House/Ebury Press. - 176 p. - ISBN 9780091886691 - Original title: Russendisko (German)