Entirely true fiction

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Going Dutch with German Writers (13) : Storyfinder Annett Gröschner
Smoky inside view: The "Rumbalotte continua" in Prenzlauer Berg.
Smoky inside view: The "Rumbalotte continua" in Prenzlauer Berg.Foto: Privat

Anyway, she wrote down their stories and condensed them so much that they became like fiction, except they were entirely true. And that was how she got into writing prose. Did she take the three old ladies in Walpurgistag from real life? Well, they’re a quintessence of all the women of that generation she met in Prenzlauer Berg. And the three young women: Sugar, Cakes and Candy? They’re made up of Turkish-German girls she met through projects in schools. She tells me how much she admires their approach to life – wearing headscarves with teetering high heels, following the letter of the law but getting away with all sorts of things. It was similar with her ugly old FDJ shirt, she says, they all used to wear it because they had to, but it just made them all the more creative about the rest of their outfits (and their lives, I infer). I’m delighted because we did the exact same thing with our school uniforms in England.

Rumbalotte regulars keep passing our table on the way to the gents. They stop and say hello, and shake both our hands in that warm Berlin way that I really miss nowadays. Some of them say thanks to Annett for one thing or another, and she says, oh no no, no need to thank me, as people do who are naturally generous with their time and resources. One man comes and joins us at our table briefly, and tells stories about smuggling tortoises across the border in the 1950s, before the Wall was built. He has to go again though – huge grin – because he’s signing his book at the bar. That was Gerd Schönfeld, Annett tells me, the last Bohemian in Prenzlauer Berg. He’s a funeral musician. He turns up at the chapel and plays whatever they ask for. Wait, that sounds familiar – don’t you have a character who… Yes, he’s based on Gerd. Wow.

We talk a bit more. About how writers have to make a living and aren’t saving the world, but at the same time a society needs people with the time and capacity to think about big questions and address them in fiction and on stage. About being atheists and how people are embarrassed to admit they’ve had their children baptized but do it anyway. How religion is becoming ideology. How kids have appallingly conservative taste in art. How schools shouldn’t segregate children at all. The effect of the financial crisis in Greece on literary translators. How 1960s urban planners ruined the social fabric of Berlin-Wedding by pulling down perfectly good buildings to get rid of the communists, and made a profit in between by crowding in Turkish tenants, who became the scapegoats. There was more but I’ve forgotten it. We are agreeing about everything, which makes me happy.

Annett warned me beforehand that it gets very smoky at the Rumbalotte but it hasn’t been too bad so far. Then Gerd comes back. He is followed by two other younger gents who don’t introduce themselves, so presumably they just want to sit next to Gerd. They pass him a constant stream of cigarettes and roll-ups, and all three of them smoke and smoke and smoke. One of the men gives Gerd a literary magazine, of which I assume he’s the editor. I take a surreptitious look at the contents page: one female contributor. The ceiling mural of many, many big sharp knives pointed at contorted women’s genitalia starts feeling threatening. I comment on it to Annett – yes, that was a crazy Russian artist, and yes, it’s difficult with men and women here. Do I want one more for the road? Foolishly, I answer yes, I can take it. I can’t believe I said that. Not another beer though; I want a small schnapps. Vodka? Yes. Gerd gets a coffee. The mysterious gents are drinking water, I think.

The Blogger: Katy Derbyshire

Katy Derbyshire is a London-born translator who moved to Berlin in 1996. She has translated many contemporary German writers, including Felicitas Hoppe, Francis Nenik, Clemens Meyer, Inka Parei, Dorothee Elmiger, Simon Urban, Sibylle Lewitscharoff and Christa Wolf. She likes talking about books.

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