Berlin Alexanderplatz is the home of Lena, the first person narrator of this debut novel by Nellja Veremej. It is also of course the title of the famous 1929 novel by Alfred Döblin, set in Berlin and appearing as a leitmotif throughout the novel, for this is not just Lena’s story but the story of Berlin itself, its layers of history uncovered for us by the narrator on her walks through the city, including the fictitious history of Döblin’s protagonist, Franz Biberkopf.
Lena is Russian and has lived in Berlin for several years after arriving as a refugee with her husband and small daughter, Marina. She works as a carer for the elderly and through hearing their stories learns of the personal sufferings endured in the war years. Their experiences are often linked to place and as she wheels her patient, Ulf Seitz, around the Torstrasse in his wheel chair, she discovers the significance of, for example, the memorial at Bülowplatz, and uncovers the plaque with Rosa Luxemburg’s words, half hidden in a snowdrift. As well as describing public spaces Veremej excels at evoking the atmosphere of personal spaces : the melancholy and emptiness of her mother’s flat when Lena finds the dark smudge on the pillow where her hennaed head had lain.
The memories and stories of Ulf Seitz trigger her own memories: at 43, she is suspended between her daughter’s generation and that of her elderly mother, still living in a small town in the Caucasus. Anecdotes and memories of her simple, rural childhood, of her introduction to world literature through the librarian at the ‘Fleischkombinat’ ( meat factory), of the turbulent days of studying in the midst of Perestroika, are evoked and stories deftly told. She shares with Ulf, who was born and brought up in Berlin’s East, a Communist past: he has the same model of fridge, the ZIL MOSKWA, as her mother and neither quite understands why the soviet invasion of Afghanistan was called a war, and the NATO invasion a peace mission.
But the book is not just a trip down memory lane: Veremej enjoys describing the process of change and the face of contemporary Berlin too. Lena is infected by Ulf’s interest and knowledge about the 19th century city but also reflects on the passing of the Volkspalast and the new Berliner Schloss. And in terms of its people Lena’s contemporary Berlin is full of Russians and Eastern Europeans: the majority of her colleagues working in the caring sector are educated women from Eastern Europe and the community are well catered for by shops such as that of Larissa, providing Eastern European delicacies to the Russian diaspora . The downside of the influx from the East is illustrated in the figure of Schura, Lena’s ex, now almost destitute, constantly borrowing money, engaged in shady deals and a casualty of the fall of communism.
The book covers a year in Lena’s life and, though light on plot, we see her growing relationship with Ulf Seitz, a love affair with a man called Roman, the death of her mother and her return to the Caucasus to wind up her affairs. One weakness of the book I felt was the shifting of focus in the second half of the book to Ulf Seitz’ story: I found this less interesting as it went on and the book seemed to lose momentum and direction here. However, I hugely enjoyed Veremej’s delight in the city, the energy of her writing and her humour: I’m still smiling at the image of the Volksbühne with its banner stating RECHTS on the left hand side of the façade and LINKS to the right. And I’m looking forward to her next novel.