A city with a good memory
Unlike smaller cities like Göttingen or small towns like Hann-Münden, Berlin is a metropolis. As in China, its size shows in the teeming crowds and the litter in the streets. Smaller German cities are quite different, you hardly see any litter. Which means size does entail administrative problems – but more tolerance as well. Putting up with litter is a sign of big-city tolerance.
In films, or at least in my mental picture of the place, Berlin is a sinister sealed-off city with men wearing coats and depressed, occasionally hysterical-looking faces. This is owing to the Hitler regime and fictionalized portrayals like the series Berlin Station. It’s not like that anymore now, of course, and maybe it wasn’t like that then either. It’s just a capital like any other, with highly developed transport as in Beijing, or presumably better than in Beijing, at any rate I didn’t notice any traffic jams. Berlin also slightly resembles Nanjing with all its trees and with its not too wide and similarly winding streets. Back in the days of the Cold War, those could certainly have served as “natural safe spots” for spies on both sides.
Friends in France had initially advised me to go to Paris. They said too much of Germany was destroyed by the war, only in Paris do you really get to see something of European urban culture. Indeed, the brand marks of war are ubiquitous in Berlin, even and especially on the Reichstag. It’s only a façade now, inside it consists entirely of a modern glass structure. British and American planes once circled round and round over Berlin (vividly nicknamed “Hitler’s nest”) dropping countless bombs. A thriving city with a centuries-old mercantile tradition, which had celebrated the 1936 Olympic Games with great shows of pomp and might, collapsed upon itself. Berlin was reconstructed during the period of a divided Germany, when half of Berlin was under East German control. To demonstrate a certain superiority over Western imperialism, bomb craters, bullet holes and other marks of destruction in East Berlin were quickly covered up, giving way to wide boulevards with sturdy Soviet-style buildings, like Karl-Marx-Allee, which was indeed an “exemplary boulevard”, a “model street”. The urban aesthetic of East European Socialism is so uniform it could be graphically nicknamed “East Germany’s Chang’an Street”. Fortunately, after reunification the German government did not tear all of this down for ideological reasons. Even the gigantic bronze busts of Marx and Engels are still there, each on its pedestal, with bushy hair and beards, revolutionary for all eternity.
While the Berlin Wall, possibly even more widely known than the Great Wall of China, has been torn down, signs have been put up on the pilings to commemorate their formerly formidable existence. Some leftover ruins of the Wall are still standing too. They’ve been sprayed by graffiti artists from top to bottom with all sorts of pictures and lettering in garish colours, leaving nothing to remind us that the Wall was once a symbol of division and terror. Only the photos of those shot attempting to cross into West Berlin still remind us what happened here, and withered flowers laid by passers-by still testify to the abiding pain of grief.
I particularly admire the way the Germans treat their cultural monuments. One has the impression people pay no attention at all to the “edifying significance” of the monuments. They are not fenced in and showcased for tourists, but simply used as long as they continue to serve their purpose – not only in Berlin, but in other German cities I visited too. Likewise the aforementioned Reichstag: from the outside it looks unchanged, whereas the bombed-out interior, since it was completely overhauled, continues to serve parliament as a space of debate, exactly as it did a century ago: non-stop jabbering, an endless hubbub of voices.
I don’t know what I would think of “European urban culture” had I gone to Paris. To tell the truth, I like cities like Berlin, not only because this city is particularly well suited for the Chinese (you can get something to eat all night and toss your cigarette butts on the ground without a second thought), but also because it’s a city that forcefully recalls its past – a city in which history and the present fuse, a city you never grow tired of.
Cao Kou (b. September 1977) is a novelist. English translations of his works so far include the short story collection There's a Tree Growing On The Roof (屋顶长的一棵树, Zhejiang Wenyi, 2012) and the short story What About the Red Indians? (in Shi Cheng: Short Stories from Urban China. Manchester, UK: Comma Press, 2012). Other publications include a collection of fiction Cao (操, Huaidan, 2009), Love it to Death (喜欢死了, Jiangsu Wenyi, 2010), More and More (越来越, Jilin Publishing Group Ltd., 2011), Lie Down and It’ll Be Better (躺下去会舒服点, Huaqiao, 2014) and a collection of essays called Fragments of Life (生活片, Chongqing University, 2013).