Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Goodbye to Berlin


British writer Christopher Isherwood moves to Berlin at a time of shifting ideologies aligned with the quick rise to prominence of a political figure named Adolf Hitler. Berlin during the last days of the Weimar Republic is a portrait of a society in decay, holding on to the pleasures of a bygone era giving way to what will be a tumultuous phase of the country’s history. Dealing with penury and lack of motivation for his novellas, Christopher changes residences quite often and meets some colorful personalities along the way, among them: Sally Bowles, a flapper who possesses grand showbiz ambitions but without the talent to match; homosexual couple Otto Nowak and Peter Wilkinson, with whom he shares a flat at a Baltic Sea town; Natalie Landauer, a young Jewish woman who is among the many students that he is tutoring in English; and Fräulein Schneider, his German landlady. They navigate Berlin society as anti-Semitic sentiments are on the rise, paving the path for a grim and uncertain future.

The novel is a combination of six novellas either focusing on a specific character, setting or period of time in the author’s life. Only his real name remains, which he lends to the main character. The rest are changed but clearly based on real life individuals that Isherwood met during his misadventures in Berlin. While all of them are memorable and have their own stories to tell, it is Sally Bowles that stands out in the crowd, probably because of the name recall thanks to the character’s many incarnations in pop culture since the book was published. Some even argue that the character is the very epitome of Germany during that time.

Since most books dealing with Nazism and the Holocaust are in the non-fiction genre, the info that we end up getting are mostly dehumanized figures, dates, and random names. Perhaps this is the reason why semi/autobiographical takes are a breath of fresh air because they can give you a firsthand assessment of the general stimmung of the time. In this regard, Goodbye to Berlin is anchored by the author in a semi-autobiographical character of the same name, providing a reliable and direct narration that somehow captures the zeitgeist which, I must say, is rather scary given the parallels we can see everywhere nowadays. Or maybe this is really just our nature as a species?

His characters are memorable alright, but what piques your curiosity the most are his descriptions of the riots and violence as Hitler was installing himself in power. Again, it is rather scary because such scenarios can be seen in many parts of the world nowadays. Were the Germans of the 1930’s aware of what they were doing and supporting as everything was unfolding? Or is it just the tragedy of human society that we are unable to recognize something terrible happening in real time, taking a few decades before realization via historic citation is collectively met in hindsight?

Political upheavals aside, Isherwood also has a knack for elegant prose without resorting to verbose exposition. His verse is both easy and beautiful to read, and also gives you the sense as though you were just one of his friends taking part in a group reading of his diary. His novella collection provides a glimpse of how society back in the day dealt with issues such as homosexuality and xenophobia, too. What was tolerated? What was scorned? In the end you might just come up with the conclusion that progress has been slow, even though we can argue that we have come a long way so far. Yet there’s still so much left to be done.

I have not seen the Hollywood film adaptation with Liza Minelli yet, but I have plans of watching the current Broadway staging. As such, I have nothing to compare the novel to. I guess we’ll see what artistic liberties the creators of the cinematic and theatrical renditions have taken. I just hope that they managed to preserve the core of the storyline somehow. As for this novel, it seems to form part of a greater literary universe sharing some characters here and there, all authored by Isherwood. If you are interested in this particular era of Berlin and Germany, then I suppose they will end up being enjoyable readings as well.

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