MacLehose Press, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Roads to Berlin, By Cees Nooteboom trans. Laura Watkinson

This personal chronicle of Berlin captures the restless heartbeat of an "old -new" metropolis

Berlin: the word brings a myriad of associations, whether it's Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin that comes to mind, John le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Norman Foster's Reichstag cupola, or Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum – most eloquent, perhaps, when empty.

Berlin is that "city of the negative space, the space where something is not, the bombed-out-of-existence, the closed-off, the mysteriously forbidden". It is Brecht's theatre, or the oasis of the French cemetery, or a River Spree frozen in winters shaped by Siberian winds, or that particular sensuality of a Berlin summer when the lushness of trees, bushes, their fruits floating on the surface of the lakes, the meadowlands of the parks, have an almost indecent abandon.

Whether through memories of the revolutionary excitement of 1989 or dark echoes from other footfalls on those wide avenues and shadowy sidestreets, any visitor to Berlin will be familiar with its peculiar blend of tangible History (yes, with a capital "H", insists Cees Nooteboom, just as Time and Memory seem to call for capitalisation in this old-new metropolis) and the restless heartbeat of its constant evolution.

The Dutch author's life as a writer is intimately entwined with Berlin and that wider "enigma", Germany. In childhood – he was seven when the war began – it was the "incredible noise" of the Stukas and Heinkels over The Hague that stole that section of human memory so evocative to Proust and Nabokov. His youngest years are a blank slate; no nibbling of the Dutch equivalent of a madeleine can invoke recollections.

It was later that his encounters with the bewildering land of contradictions were experienced with head and heart. In that patchwork of states, language was both the beautiful idiom of Goethe, Hölderlin, Novalis, and the one used to give expression to regimes unimaginable to those men of letters (not that they were strangers to the thin divide between Gleichgewicht – "balance" – and chaos). In 1963, Nooteboom covered the visit to Germany of Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev, and later, in that watershed year of 1989, he was back for 18 months on a writer's grant. The essay-like chapters of this book of reflections, or "telegrams to myself" from those visits, are evidence of an observer and chronicler: a congenial, erudite and whimsical companion of a rare ilk. As Jan Morris is to Venice or Trieste, as Edmund White to Paris and Claudio Magris to the Danube, so is Cees Nooteboom to Berlin.

He divides Roads to Berlin into four sections. They range from the drama of border crossings in January 1963 – with the winterscape of towers, men in snowsuits with dogs and rifles, travel along "Hitler's Autobahn" at the prescribed 100km per hour – to a tremendous chronicling of surreal or moving detail in the months leading to that new measurement of time in 1989, Before the Wall/After the Wall, and into the 1990s. Nooteboom is "there to see", inviting the reader to exchange a frozen-in-time sense of looking back for a personal perception of the reality.

Nooteboom's perspective is that of the outsider. He captures the state of flux with the clarity of journalism and the slower lens of the poet. When the "present" moves with dizzying alacrity, and the eddy of voices and opinions grows too much, he retreats to the literary world of Goethe's journeys through the Harz mountains, or to the unusual balm of the zoo in the former East of the city, with "the Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs… the Siberian bears, the panther and the heron".

The leitmotifs of these essays are the passage of time; the creation of "History" and its vanishing traces; the sense of the forbidden. Different ages rub shoulders: that of the Prussian kings and Stalin's architecture, of the Third Reich's happenings (those shadow companions on any walk through the city), and the possibility of what some tabloids refer to as the "Fourth Reich". Rather, writes Nooteboom, this is the "gentle face of power" as now embodied by the chancellery – the Bundeskanzleramt; a building not bombastic, modest even – as he ponders Germany's place in the current European "crisis".

He acknowledges the uneasiness in some quarters about the strong player Germany undoubtedly is, inconceivable in the rubble-strewn devastation of 60 years ago, and remembers his own astonishment at the pace of reconstruction over the layers of story in Potsdamer Platz – the sense of "future power". However, he confesses to a "quiet euphoria". Regardless of his "inner archive... I was determined to find everything magnificent. The Deutsche Bahn stole through forests and mountains…"

Roads to Berlin contains a promise of sorts: that, once tasted, you will always find a road back to a city which will be familiar and yet not. Beautifully translated by Laura Watkinson with a helpful glossary and a bibliography to escort the reader on further journeys, this is a delightful book. Sombre (how could it be otherwise?), it has that particular clarity of the "copper sun" picking out details on the façades of buildings and the souls of Berliners, past and present. Masterfully, it listens in to the rhythms of the History of both.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor