I’m not quite sure where my desire to visit Berlin came from and I can’t remember when the divided city was first something I was aware of. I was born in the late sixties so for me it had always been cut through by the Wall. My German teacher had been to East Berlin and I know I was fascinated by his memories of it and I remember that one of the translation pieces we did in preparation for O Grade was about the Berlin airlift which was another fascinating thing for me. In primary school, I had read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, the first book in Judith Kerr’s fictionalised autobiography, so I knew that Berlin had once been a whole city. But I still can’t put all of that together and pinpoint the origin of my desire to visit.
I was twenty one and a post-graduate student in Aberdeen when I watched the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was excited and emotional as I thought about families and friends who might now be reunited. I understood enough to know that this was part of a bigger unravelling of European Communism and that I was living in a period of history that would be long remembered and discussed. But a tiny (unworthy) part of me was disappointed that I would never be able to visit East Berlin.
It was another twelve years or so before I visited the city. I went twice, in December and then the following May, to visit a friend who was on a year’s teaching exchange and was teaching in what had been East Berlin. By then much had changed, at least outwardly, but it was still possible to see how the city had been split and, in some places, to imagine I might be being watched. I remember standing in the underground station at Friedrichstrasse wondering how it must have felt as an East German to know that you were only one stop away from the West (of the city at least) but that a barricade ensured that the train would never go there.
So when Paul Dowswell’s Sektion 20 appeared in 2011 I was already primed to love it. By then I was a fan of his writing, having been overwhelmed by Auslander, also partly set in Berlin but during the Second World War. But Sektion 20 encapsulated the Berlin I’d grown up knowing about and wanting to visit. It’s difficult to write much about the plot without spoiling it for those who’ve yet to read it. The main character is Alex, a teenager living in East Berlin with his parents and sister. In the way of teenagers, he’s dissatisfied with his life and confused about his future. However, when his father, a loyal party member, suggests that the family should consider leaving East Berlin – and illegally at that – he is astounded and appalled and excited all at once.
This much I will say: parts of the book are set on both sides of the Berlin Wall and on neither side is life straightforward. Alex, Geli and their parents have all been keeping secrets from each other which follow them across the divided city. In his afterword, Paul talks about the widely varying memories former citizens of East Berlin have and the different truths that exist about life there. In his novel he captures that and stays well away from facile judgements. And he is equally careful to demonstrate that life in the west of the city had its own problems and imperfections.
I’d happily give Paul’s book to anyone looking for an introduction to life in Cold War era Berlin. (Actually, I’d happily give it to anyone who’s looking for a great story.) Like all his books, Sektion 20 is meticulously researched and non-judgemental. He writes an engrossing story using the information he has gathered, presents it and leaves his readers to make their own decisions.