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
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform