From the North American Branch newsletter
For anyone raised during the Cold War, the city of Berlin is a legendary place made even more legendary by the novels it inspired. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Funeral in Berlin, The Good German, and so many others have turned imaginary Berlin into as significant a place in crime writing as Chandlerian Los Angeles. This child of the Cold War certainly wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to see it for himself when the annual meeting of AIEP was scheduled to be held there, knowing full well that time has not stood still since the Wall came down.
In fact, one has to search for standing sections of the Wall, though there are many chunks of it for sale in the souvenir shops, complete with mini-certificates of authenticity. A skeptic might ask whether it is possible to be certain that a particular piece of concrete actually was a part of the Wall, as there is so much construction in the city it might have come from a razed Soviet bloc apartment complexes. But authenticity doesn’t much matter if —like a knucklebone purported to be a saint’s—a chunk of concrete is a tangible symbol of something we should never forget.
A portion of the Wall remained standing just outside the entrance of the Bundespressamt (national press office), weeds growing around the parallel concrete slabs with thick round pipes at the top to make it difficult to get a hand hold on. It was easy to look at it and imagine the concertina wire, the dogs, and the crack of a rifle. Here the Wall would have bisected the site of the building, as it once divided one of the main train stations. Fritz Dinkelmann and Zornitza Petkova, our hosts, had arranged for the business meetings to be held there, a modern building with a large, enclosed courtyard where we were greeted by the André Schmitz, Berlin Cultural Secretary of State and had two delightful sit-down lunches.
Our hotel, the Arte Luise Kunsthotel, was barely a block away, hard against a railway viaduct busy with train traffic. The sumptuous feast that concluded the meeting at Habel Weinkultur was located under the arch of this bridge and the bricks rumbled above us at frequent intervals as commuters headed home and we enjoyed the last opportunity for our group to socialize. The hotel itself was similar to the hotel at the Amsterdam meeting of 2004, an older building with rooms redesigned by artists. In the lobby wall hung a huge sculpture of the nostrils of a horse, which was very unnerving to sit under. My room was an homage to Edward Hopper, with a huge painting inspired by his works and several small plaster figurines on the walls. Very pleasant and far enough from the train that I did not need the earplugs provided by the management. Other rooms were more unusual. One had a sculpture of iron pipes which enclosed old newspaper clippings, wires, driftwood and pieces of string. It evoked all the sad history of Berlin in the 1930s and 1940s, according to the occupants, making it possibly an effective work of art, but not so cheery a place to sleep.
Some seventeen nationalities were represented at the business meetings, including writers from much of Europe, Iceland, Japan and Turkey. Unfortunately, the lack of any delegates from Latin America was noted by many and much concern was expressed that the Latin Americans, once so vigorous members, had lost interest. To be fair, however, Europe has become an expensive place to visit. The Euro went as high as $1.40 during the meeting and even higher later. Also, as Piet Teigeler remarked, AIEP has been spoiled by having generous support in previous years from local governments and organizations. Berlin’s huge building program has left little in the city’s coffers and despite Fritz’s heroic efforts—he had an operation in the weeks before the meeting and was actually making arrangements from his hospital bed—we were pretty much on our own.
Funding AIEP with a membership fee or a meeting registration charge was discussed in the business meetings. This was referred to a committee for consideration for the congress in Frontignan, France in 2008. Besides offering Icelend as the AIEP venue for 2009, Aevar Orn led an animated discussion questioning the purposes and goals of AIEP. Minutes detailing these discussions and other business will be forthcoming.
Delegates were also taken on a tour of a courthouse and various interesting details of the legal system were explained. Juries are not used in the German system, for instance, and fiancés are not required to testify against their betrothed, leading to many impromptu proposals during the recesses of trials. Several prosecutors discussed their work against car theft rings and human trafficking. While prostitution is legal in Germany, forcing someone into it is not. In the poorer countries near Germany, women will be promised jobs in Germany and then find themselves abused and enslaved in a brothel.
We were also given a presentation by two officers of the Soko Rex, a task force of the state of Saxony that investigates extreme right wing groups. Detailing their methods of determining who and why to investigate, the officers brought various paraphrenalia which had been seized in raids: a bottle of Sieg Heil wine with Hitler depicted on the label, various homemade Nazi uniform decorations, CDs of white supremacy music with revolting lyrics and depictions of lynchings on the label, steel-toed boots, and, of course, weapons. It is embarrassing that so much of the material had been imported from the United States, as most Nazi stuff is illegal in Germany.
One evening, after a nice dinner at the Literaturhaus, a reading was given of three selections translated into a language not native to the writer. Chris Rippen read a story of his own, translated into German, Jenny White read a portion of her novel in German, and Jerry Healy stood in for Carmen Iarrera (who could not attend at the last minute) reading a story of hers that had been translated into English.
There were, as usual, many memorable experiences and enjoyable moments with old and new friends, but perhaps the most memorable for me was sitting in a tavern by the river just feet from where the Wall had once divided the city and listening to Jutta Motz recount what it was like to live in that divided city and cross from West to East each day because of her job. To get a sense of the paranoia and the ironies, watch the brilliant movie The Lives of Others, which won an Oscar as best foreign language film. Orwellian doesn’t do justice to life in the old German Democratic Republic (East Germany).
Berlin today seems a thousand years away from all that. Flags, hats, and military regalia from the old GDR are sold on the street as souvenirs, as if from some dark fantasy. There is a huge futuristic, glass train station, Turkish cab drivers, teenage druggies hanging out in the Alexanderplatz, and tourists posing around the Brandenberg Gate. I was very struck by the trees, the green parks, and the extensive use of the river for touring boats, and waterside restaurants and flea markets. Another curiosity was the number of artificial beaches complete with sand, loungers, and huge umbrellas. Berlin today is in many ways the economic capital of Europe, a smorgasbord of ethnic groups, and, like all great cities staring into the mist that is the future.