What makes up the history of a city? Is it the linear timeline — the who invaded when; the who led which group into victory or destruction; the list of intellectuals, emperors, madmen, musicians, scientists, orators who came through and left their mark? Maybe it’s the physical landscape, the rivers that create trade and wealth, the mountains that provide security and shelter. And what does that history add up to — if you learn enough about a city’s history, will you finally understand what makes the city what it is, will you capture its essence on the page?
- Mumbai Fables by Gyan Prakash. 424 pages. Princeton University Press. $29.95.
- Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin by Alexandra Richie. 1,168 pages. Basic Books.
- George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I by Miranda Carter. 528 pages. Knopf. $30.
I wonder this a lot as I read one history book after another about Berlin. I have been lugging Alexandra Richie’s massive Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin wherever I go, which, at 1,168 pages, is causing great strain and neck injury. It starts with the Romans, the Huns, the Slavs, and mysterious people who foolishly created a city on a territory with no landscape advantages, and it ends with the reunification after the fall of the GDR. Before Faust, I read The Silences of Hammerstein, about life in Weimar Berlin. And then Berlin in the Twenties. Every Man Dies Alone. Lustmord. Glitter and Doom. Otto Dix: A Biography. The German Genius. Landscape and Memory. The Safety Net. We Weren’t Modern Enough: Women Artists and the Limits of German Modernism. George, Nicholas and Wilhelm. The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber. In Europe. Never in my life have I read so many books about one topic in such a short span of time. Yet I am not really getting any closer to understanding the city in which I live.
It’s not just the horrible history, or the oddness of a foreign culture. It’s the charisma of its contradictions. Berlin is an ugly city, rebuilt after the war as a hodgepodge of hideous modernism, Soviet cement blocks, and plastered-up bullet holes on the facades of buildings that did manage to survive. And yet it is lush and beautiful — in the spring everything grows wild and tangled. It’s an unfriendly city, yet it exudes warmth. It is restrained and skeletal, just decadent and depraved. The paradox of Berlin pulls you in, speaks to you in code, makes you want to learn more, pull it even closer even as you hate it and try to flee. I am reading these histories to find some sort of hidden doorway to Berlin’s core. I’m still circling the borderlands, though.
I obsess over Berlin like a 14-year-old girl with a new crush. Even when I’m supposed to be thinking about something else, I am figuring out Berlin. As I read Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables, a series of essays about Mumbai art, culture, history, politics, architecture, journalism, and crime, I was thinking about this infuriating city. When Prakash is writing about B.G. Horniman — an Irish anti-colonialist newspaperman who ran the Bombay Chronicle — I’m thinking about the scrappy Münchener Post, the only newspaper to openly criticize the rise of the Nazis. When he writes about Indian comic books, I’m recalling the article I read about why Germans are so obsessed with Donald Duck comics. (Another mystery to me.)
Reading Mumbai Fables, you can get the sense of the linear timeline, the Bombay to Mumbai, England to India, with a jagged Partition down the middle. It’s a precarious city, built on land reclaimed from the sea. The British built a Gothic skyline, giving it a historical feel that relates to nothing in their history. And what was once a glittering city of film, wealth, inspiration and glamour is now mostly known for slums and violence. But going from A to B won’t help you understand how that happened. Prakash uses the act of collage to give the reader a better perspective.
Take the act of suicide that opens chapter 4, “The Cosmopolis and the Nation.” “On October 9, 1947, a young Muslim woman committed suicide in Bombay.” It was an act by an unknown woman — the kind of thing that would make the headlines but not the history books. Except that this was the year of the Partition, the creation of the nation of Pakistan, the mass movement of Muslims out of India, and the riots and murders and suicides that followed. And while suicide is a confusing, complicated act — one that can be personal, emotional, political, and also senseless — Prakesh does a masterful job straightening out all of the various tensions that contributed to the act and the environment in which it took place. Leaders make decisions to invade Poland or partition this newly independent nation, and it affects the lives of the people on the ground. But the build-up to those moments take centuries, and the other factors that influence a life — religion, culture, art, education, experience, travel — and those individual lives make up a city. These insubstantial lives can be ignored in favor of the leaders who sign the treaties or declare the wars — the other people are just the rabble. They can be explained away by their inherent Berliner qualities, the type of people who make up a Bombay resident.
Because sometimes the historians don’t really know what to do with their subject matter either, particularly Berlin. They look for explanations for the madness of the 20th century in the city’s medieval roots. I mean, Germany really got excited about the witch hunts. They burned a lot of women. And boiled them. And buried them alive, poured molten lead between their teeth, drowned them, pulled them apart with wheels and horses. They decimated their female population like no other region in Europe. Or maybe it was Frederick William’s fault. Alexandra Richie, author of Faust’s Metropolis, writes about his 18th-century reign, “Berliners would be content to live as they had for centuries — under the all-powerful, all-knowing hand of a ‘great leader’… This passivity… established a precedent of obedience and unquestioning loyalty which lasted well into the 20th century — with disastrous consequences.” If only history were so simple to read. If only it could be like the Fibonacci sequence, all tidy with one thing leading to another, rather than the Pi sequence, in which you think you can find pattern and make sense, then an 8 shows up out of nowhere and drives you mad.
Sometimes it’s the tiniest moments that reveal the most about a city. I read Miranda Carter’s George, Nicholas and Wilhelm to try to understand better the lead up to World War I. But Carter spends so much time in palaces and at state dinners, in royal families’ parlors that I came away just as confused as before. But in a small aside, she mentions that Kaiser Wilhelm used to ask his generals to dress up in tutus and dance for his amusement. And they did. And suddenly I felt I understood a lot more about the German military and its leader, much more than from the book’s other 800 pages.
I think Prakash gets closer to a true picture of what Mumbai is — if a city is anything — than my entire library of German history. The way history folds in on itself, repeats patterns over and over until never again. The way names or places or events can be linked across centuries, with vast emptiness between them. It does not always go Frederick William, so Kaiser Wilhelm, so Adolf Hitler. It does not always go, witches then Catholics then Jews now Turks. Prakash quotes Jonathan Raban in his first chapter: “The soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps, in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture.” The soft city is more difficult to write about. It’s comforting to put things into straight lines and find cause and effect. But ultimately it’s a lie.
Near the end of Mumbai Fables, Prakash writes about the bazaars, the unexpected and chaotic arrangement of seemingly unrelated goods. (I think, yes, the flea markets in Berlin with their seemingly endless supply of old records, books, antique jewelry, electrical parts, baby clothing, VHS tapes, and artworks.) “The unexpected juxtaposition… functions like a montage, breaking up the smooth and evolutionary surface of historical representation. You see the city’s urban heritage not in a linear fashion but in the heretical arrangement of fragmentary and spatial combinations.” That collage, that jumble, is much more revealing about the city’s inner workings.
Too much has already been written on how our environments shape us, most of it incredibly vague. Does our native tongue influence the way we think, or does the way we think influence the evolution of our language? Well… Do the values and the mores of the city where we are raised instill itself into our behavior, or does the behavior of a group of people… Actually… I wonder if Berlin has changed me, and I wonder if that is good or bad. I wonder if I identify too strongly with this ugly/beautiful, tortured/buoyant, foolish/hard-scrabble city. I’ll keep on reading, and I’ll keep on walking from one end to the other. Berlin’s enchantment never ends. • 5 January 2011