This is the story of a man who falls from a ladder while decorating his flat and suffers life changing injuries. At first diagnosed as paraplegic by the doctors, he regains some feeling and movement but is permanently disabled. Related by his female partner, it is the story of how they learn to live with and come to terms with his disability. It is also a story about Berlin. It is the summer of 1986 and the couple are renovating a flat in Charlottenburg, in the former West. The narrator observes a range of colourful and often eccentric characters moving in and out of the Wohnhaus. Beyond their own lives, the couple live through the dramatic changes to the fabric and population of Berlin when the wall comes down in 1989 – fascinating reading for people who knew that city before and after 1989.
The narrator is away in Frankfurt when the accident occurs. She finds him in the clinic, completely paralysed, catheterised, his face stitched after being gashed by his workman’s trowel. After a few days he is transferred to a specialised clinic for paraplegics in Zehlendorf, a residential suburb in south west Berlin. A sort of parallel narrative then emerges, one strand detailing the narrator’s afternoon visits to her partner and the second outlining her focused organisation of workmen, planning and purchasing materials for the continuation of the flat renovations. There is barely a shred of anguish, self pity or even shock on the narrator’s part, which would after all be quite understandable in response to this catastrophic event. It’s as if this energy for the renovations is a kind of reaction- as if by ordering and organising she is taking a stand against life’s unpredictable disasters. It is when she moves his possessions into their flat- his cycle, his running shoes- that she thinks about the man he was and the life they had together, aware this is now in a past they can never return to.
The man improves in tiny, incremental steps. He is very gradually raised in the bed to a sitting position and eventually transferred to a wheelchair. The narrator’s attention to detail in recounting his progress leaves us in no doubt as to the huge effort and indescribable pain he goes through. But there is also a question of identity. The man refuses to accept the doctor’s dictum that he will be a wheelchair user. They both loathe the shapeless tracksuits the patients wear and one day the narrator brings in her partner’s linen suit for him to wear. There is a wonderful triumphant moment when she finds him waiting for her at visiting time, wearing his grey linen suit and smart town shoes, one leg casually slung over the other. Yet she knows what it cost him to arrange his legs in such a position.
Eventually towards the autumn the man leaves the clinic and moves into the now renovated flat. He is using crutches and a stick and his walking is very tentative and unsteady. The narrator describes the difficulty he experiences with getting up and down the stairs to their second floor flat when neighbours forget to close the lift doors, the difficulty he has sleeping at night with the rowdy Spanish restaurant below, the problems when pavements ice over. Yet it is also an account of the practical steps they both take to adapt to and come to terms with the new reality. This includes an eventual return to work for him. He works for a firm of architects concerned with renovation and restoration and when the wall falls in 1989 the firm expands into East Berlin. Though no longer able to work on site, he is able to meet clients and agree plans. There is an evocative account of him taking a slow walk through the buildings, barracks and storerooms used by the former border guards, now abandoned symbols of an abandoned regime.
The narrative describing how they both adapt to these changes is interleaved with glances to the past, sometimes a snatched memory- of cycling, walking, dancing the tango- activities they will not share again. Sometimes the memories are more focused on him, the man he once was. He was a talented and innovative photographer: at one of their first meetings he viewed and photographed her textile work. Together, they broached the barbed wire fencing round the bombed out Belvedere temple in Sans Souci Park- to drape it in her hangings for him to photograph. At the end of this account, she states simply that, no longer quick or steady on his feet, he’s had to give up photography.
The narrator is a visual artist too, a seamstress, and it is her visual eye which brings to life not only scenes from their personal lives, but also vignettes of Berlin. One of their favourite walks was along the river Havel, from where they could see the Kirche von Sacrow, in Potsdam, which at that time lay in the former East Germany and therefore out of reach for them in West Berlin. (I was so fascinated by her description of this Romanesque church with the blue tiles which I didn’t know that I found its website and have pasted in the photo! ) She evokes a more recent side of Berlin in her account of attending an opening visit of the new Jewish Museum in 2001. He cannot walk fast enough to keep up with the group, and as they get left further and further behind the deliberately disorientating architecture of the building brings them to a state of near panic.
The writer enjoys too describing the cast of eccentric characters who pass through their lives, often finding a temporary haven in the melting pot of the Weltstadt Berlin. In the 80s their neighbours include a Korean church, a purveyor of S and M equipment, a trans woman. Down at street level the Spanish restaurant is noisily in business all night long. With the fall of the wall, property speculators take the building over, Eastern European voices are heard on the street and cars with Polish number plates queue up to buy video recorders en masse from a shop opposite, sprung up overnight. After 9/11, the Iranian women’s Resistance movement moves in, the women in headscarves working tirelessly all night for their comrades in Iran. And then there is René, from Switzerland, now landed in Berlin, with an unprobed but possibly murky past behind him, who comes to help them, a former butler, now sort of factotum who after a while just disappears from their lives without a trace.
As with Ulrike Edschmid’s two other novels, Die Liebhaber meiner Mutter and Das Verschwinden des Philip S. one suspects a strong autobiographical element here and this is confirmed in Peter Henning’s review in Spiegel Online. He also explains that Ulrike Edschmid herself fell ill and struggled to finish the book. But she did finish it and has written a detailed and moving account of this life changing accident and the struggle to come to terms with the new reality. It is the simplicity and succinctness of her writing and her visual sensibility rendering the past so vivid which brings home to us the finality of this loss, this change. This will be a moving read for anyone wishing to understand how people live after such an event, and of course offers a fascinating account of Berlin, before and after the fall of the Wall. Let’s have it translated into English soon please!