Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries

by Rory McLean

Berlin Portrait of a City Through the Centuries by Rory McLean

When I was 16 I won an all expense paid “study tour” of Germany sponsored by Diamler-Benz and the Goethe Institute. I jest not. My school was chosen to provide a participant, an essay contest ensued, and I won the opportunity to traipse about Germany with a group of 50 other North American teens (some Canadians came as well). The final stop was in Berlin. We spent two days there. We hit up Check Point Charlie, Brandenburg Gate, the Olympic Stadium as well as some Discos… because Germany. For me, Berlin was a bit of a revelation after the glorious green of the Bavarian country side, and the traipsing through historic castles, and living with my German host family who showed me pretty and polite Germany. While in Berlin I saw a church that had been destroyed by bombing and would never be repaired. It stood as a symbol and a cautionary tale. I stood on skyscrapers and watched cranes building a new and glorious Berlin over East Berlin. I participated in a press conference with teens from both East and West with a panel of historians, journalists, and politicians. This seemed like a real place to me. It was fractured, it was complex, it was beautiful and I loved it. When I was in my early twenties I wanted to return there to live someday.

Spoiler alert, I DID not end up living in Berlin, I have not yet even had the opportunity to revisit Germany. One day… I was drawn to McLean’s book because of my personal history. I’d hoped to learn more about that city as it has evolved. Like Berlin itself, the book is complicated because I did learn more, but at the same time I didn’t. I’m not generally a huge fan of historical fiction, and I’d classify this book in that category… well parts of it. See this is what I’m talking about. Are you fiction or non fiction? Make up your mind, book! McLean begins his tale at the beginning with the fictitious poet Konrad and his imprisonment for creating his own type of poems… then we quickly move on to other sad invented and not invented historical characters, soldiers, artists, prostitutes, not prostitutes, and David Bowie? Yep, weird and tacked on because apparently Bowie and McLean know each other in real life, so why not tie that in somehow.

I did not like this book. It isn’t that McLean can’t spin a yarn, because he can. He has a talent for quickly engaging the reader into a storyline with a captivating plot. He can craft story arcs with limited time which is a challenge. My problem with his book overall is its bleakness. Everyone is miserable. Everyone is tormented. Everyone is horrible. Berlin is a dark place ever changing into more darkness. There are also wide gaps between the history and the fantasy particularly when Marlene Dietrich and David Bowie enter the story. At this point McLean also wants to join in the book which leaves the book feeling as it actually should be two separate and distinct things… or maybe three? One historical non fiction and two separate magazine articles about pop history? Either way. The book as a whole was not edifying, or educating, or terribly entertaining. I will say, that it was nicely designed and beautifully bound? At least the edition that I own, but one doesn’t love a book for its cover so I will have to steer interested parties away from this book. There have to be better books out there about Berlin, though maybe not quite so comprehensive? If any readers have recommends, I’m open.

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