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
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea


In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

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.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game