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Berlin diaries

Interview: Kate Müser
August 18, 2014

Calling himself a "city whore," Berlin author David Wagner is nevertheless faithful to the German capital as it swings on a pendulum of popularity. He tells DW why - and why he's not sad about missing the 80s there.

German author David Wagner, Copyright: Alexander Janetzko
Image: Alexander Janetzko

In "Berlin Triptych," David Wagner describes three locations in Berlin that are rich in symbolism - Friedrichstrasse in the center, Schönhauser Allee in the East and Café M in the West - around the turn of the millennium. He returned in 2013 to the same three locations to observe how the city - famous for its penchant for change - had evolved over a quarter century since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

DW: Mr Wagner, your book "Berlin Triptych" contains parallel impressions from Berlin in 1998 and 2000 and then again in 2013. What led you to write down your observations in the first place?

David Wagner: I moved to Berlin in 1991. Then I studied in Paris for two years and came back to Berlin. So much had already happened there and I was discovering writing at that time and Berlin was right at my doorstep. I had the opportunity to write stories for "Tagesspiegel," then "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" started its so-called Berlin Pages. I always had a place where I could publish these texts on Berlin in the 90s.

That's where these three texts came from: Café M, where I spent a lot of time; or Schönhauser Allee, where I often took walks; or Friedrichstrasse, as a place that was practically invented at that time.

There was a kind of Berlin hype then, around 1999 and 2000.

With your parallel approach, the reader expects a kind of before-and-after, but instead you describe two eras that are equally times of transformation. A good example for that are the many construction sites that serve as a motif in all six texts. Do you think they disturb the cityscape or are they simply part of Berlin?

I don't know it any differently. I would say they belong to the city. The fascinating thing about the 90s was that the city was so empty and there were so many empty spaces, when you see pictures of Potsdamer Platz, or Friedrichstrasse or where the Berlin Wall used to be. In the past 25 years, it's become a lot fuller. And I'm curious what will happen when they start tearing down what was built back then and building new things, as normally happens in cities.

Do you feel confined by this new fullness?

No. On the contrary, I remember when Berlin was so empty and we thought, "My God, where are all the people?" Of course it can be charming when there are gaps between the buildings. But I don't have anything against new buildings. I think the city can handle a bit more density.

Friedrichstrasse in October 2013, Copyright: DW
There are other cities that are more beautiful than Berlin, confesses Wagner

In the first text about Friedrichstrasse in 1998, you make comparisons to many other places, including the United States, Mexico City and Mumbai. The international influences have only increased. Do you think the foreign influences have replaced Berlin's "Germanness" in the meantime?

Describing your own surroundings can be problematic. In the 90s, I was traveling a lot and saw other cities and saw how they look and how they work. I was in Mexico City for an extended period of time and was then able to see Berlin differently through this lens. I could see what Berlin is missing - or was missing. Now we have a bit more.

In the past 25 years, Berlin has very much been on a search for itself - and still is, actually. Of course it's helpful to know how it is in other cities. It wasn't until I returned from Paris that I realized how lucky I am to be able to live in such a transitory era - it was this complete 19th-century city. In comparison, Berlin was so unfinished. But that's also an opportunity.

Is there any other city in the world where you feel just as at home as in Berlin?

I can't live without Berlin. Here I can walk through the streets and meet people and that's wonderful. But, aesthetically speaking, honestly there are cities that are more beautiful. This year I was a guest professor in Bern, a beautiful city in Switzerland. Then I was in Turin and fell in love with Turin, and I realized: Actually I'm a "city whore." There are cities where I think I just want to stay. But I would say I'd always come back to Berlin.

Café M stands out next to the two boulevards in the book. You say there wasn't anything special about it, but what made it so special to you?

I spent a lot of time there in the 90s. It was a place where one would sit and have expectations - but they were expectations about the past. That was the irony, that a young person in his early 20s would sit there and think about what he missed in the 80s, thinking he's too late. More and more people are now talking about the 90s and regretting that they missed the wild 90s in Berlin. And I remember, I was there and saw everything, but then I was sitting in Café M and thinking about the 80s.

Actually we all miss something. Or it's invented in retrospect.

Today, Café M is totally uninteresting. I live far away from it and have a different café here.

What would you like people to take away from Berlin when they visit for the first time and don't have the comparison to the past that you do?

That they open their eyes and look around. In Berlin it's still really easy to see the individual historical breaks. The city is lying there as an open book - with West Berlin, Nazi Berlin, communist Berlin. That's built in as part of the city. It's interesting to see the layers in the city.

Will Berlin have "found itself" in another 15 years?

Berlin is "in" again right now. But I've already experienced that three times: right after the fall of the Berlin Wall in the early 90s, then around 2000, and now again for a longer period. But there were downswings in between, so I'm not worried that interest will go down again and something else will come.

The German version of "Berlin Triptych" was published in 2013 as part of the book "Mauerpark," which contains observations from throughout the city. The English excerpt, translated by Katy Derbyshire, was released this summer by Readux Books.

David Wagner, born in 1971 in western Germany, released his prize-winning debut novel, "My Night-Blue Trousers," in 2000. His novel "Four Apples" was long-listed for the 2009 German Book Prize. Wagner was awarded the Leipzig Book Fair Prize in 2013 for "Lives."