The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- To and fro in “darkest Europe”

Magdeburg is in what was called vaguely, until fourteen years ago, “East Germany”. It is well known for being an important pre-war industrial town, for being thoroughly bombed during the war; for a very old cathedral, and for Otto von Guericke, after whom the university is named. This man was a scientist who is renowned for an experiment: he joined two empty hemispheres together and filled them with a vacuum. Then, in an odd tug-of-war, he had teams of horses try to pull them apart. They failed.

As we stepped out of the railway station into the strong light of six o’clock in the evening, Reini made us turn around and look at the building. It was the most magnificent structure in the area, something that might have been erected at the end of the nineteenth century; one could imagine it as a great terminus for horse-drawn carriages. From it to our hotel was a mere two minutes’ walk. The hotel resembled an American motel, and was just the place for the conference visitor: well-equipped, efficient, unlovely, and turn of the century (the twentieth, not the nineteenth). We washed our faces and combed our hair in a brightly-lit bathroom before emerging for our walk with Reini.

Our walks give me the illusion of knowing Reini better than I do. His beard, his granny glasses, his long hair, coming down to well below his collar, suggest — and I confirmed this from a black and white picture in his kitchen — that, although he’s probably modulated his politics, he’s largely left the incarnation he found himself in during the student radicalism of the late Sixties, when he was at Berlin’s Free University, untouched.

Naturally, he’s put on weight. No sign of his residual left-wing propensities is to be found in his beautiful Berlin flat. Only, in the course of conversation, a professed enthusiasm for Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams betrays not so much an allegiance to a programme as a private romanticism. He has travelled; he lived for years in China; he has been to India; among the pictures in his kitchen is a postcard that shows a place I believed I’d seen before — was it Rome' Only after repeated glances at the brown stone buildings, the lovely urban arc of traffic around an ancient European statue, did I recognize the Flora Fountain in Bombay I’d pass every day on my way to school.

In the black and white photo, Reini is smoking a cigarette. I think he’s given up this habit. Like radicalism, cigarette smoking made an exit from bourgeois European society in the Eighties. The new religion is life; not just the pursuit of happiness, but of health. In this regard, Reini’s unfashionable paunch — a small one, but a paunch nevertheless — proclaims, more than any political opinion, his marginal anomalousness. I don’t know what his relationship to the contemporary world is, but I suspect it isn’t an entirely normal one; I suspect that, in spite of his joviality, his apparent satisfaction with his routine of work and leisure, he is secretly bemused by the fallout of the Cold War.

I think that he belonged to a particular sub-group in that generation of Europeans that was defined by the Cold War in profound and contradictory ways; that, while he’d never have given up the pleasures and freedoms of capitalist society, or doubted the veracity of democracy, or doubted the futility of the division of Europe into East or West, or the bane of the Iron Curtain, the flame of some pure, Marxist nostalgia would have been fed, without his being even fully conscious of it, by the existence of the Soviet Union that otherwise, in the daylight of reason, so appalled him. The fall of the Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union must have left him off-kilter; ever so slightly, in comparison to his counterpart in the East, but off-kilter nevertheless.

That’s why, may be, he likes taking visitors for these walks; why he’s such a good guide. I wouldn’t mind him as a companion in purgatory. I asked him if he ever found it a nuisance showing people around. He said, no, he enjoyed seeing familiar things through others’ eyes. I think the walks, punctuated by jokes and gestures of the hand, are a sort of circling round history, a pattern of confirmation and distancing. Because they are an improvised, rather than an actual, form of mapping, they must accrue, rather than lose, significance with repetition.

The walk that sunlit evening too traced a sort of circle. We started from the hotel, went past the station, turned right at Pizza Hut — a signpost of post-Cold War Magdeburg — passed a group of academics who’d come here for the conference on post-colonial literatures, walked down an immense road with tramlines in the middle, then right, into a long featureless avenue that led us to the cathedral — dark, huge, one of Europe’s oldest. From there we turned back, past another old and peculiar building, the General Post Office, and, finally, made our way through a path that, by some sleight of hand, returned us to our post-modern hotel.

By our second evening, our last, my wife and I had become well-acquainted with this arc. Nowadays, I find it takes me only a day or two to form an emotional link with a place I’m passing through. It’s as if I’ve entered yet another suburb of an indefinite but persistent metropolis I’ll never escape. This suburb is different from the one I was last in, but not wholly strange. I begin to find my way in it; at first, like a blind man; then, with a mixture of circumspection and trepidation, like someone who’s never strayed from the route to a particular destination over many years, but who has never found that route boring. All this happens in approximately a day. When I was a child, I recall, I went to Athens, but never felt like seeing the Parthenon. Now, I find that a city like Magdeburg compels me to discover it.

My reading, on the second day, was at 7 pm; we had the rest of the day to ourselves. We visited a pharmacy; chanced upon an open market in a town square; photographed the statue of a man on horseback; and ran, astonishingly, into an Indian selling knick-knacks. He told me he’d been a taxi driver in Punjab; he had married a German tourist and come here eleven years ago. They were now divorced; he’d stayed on. My discovery of this man, my compatriot, was, to me, incredible; for I’d begun to imagine I was the only Indian man in Magdeburg. These days, no one stares at you in the West; eye-contact is a potential precursor to assault; when it occurs, it’s nearly always domesticated by a nod and a smile. In Magdeburg, though, my family and I were stared at intently. During that stare, I became aware not only of my own extraordinariness, but of the extraordinariness of history. These feelings were complicated by a conversation I had had five minutes prior to meeting the Indian vendor.

We were resting on a bench before a fountain; a tramp with a can of lager in one hand sat on the neighbouring bench. “Indien'” he said suddenly. Disarmed, I nodded. He then asked me a series of questions in German. “No Deutsch, no Deutsch,” I replied. He embarked upon a hoarse, rapid monologue. Finally, he raised his arm in the old Nazi salute. What had this man done and thought, I wondered, during those forty-odd years of communism'

Reini tells me that most East Germans, in a fit of collective amnesia, forgot the legacy of socialism overnight. An Indian friend says, however, that she found an older generation in Dresden still insisting on speaking Russian as a second language. Certainly, in Magdeburg, it would be impossible, today, to get by without German. And the second language in question now is not Russian, but English; and, as the head of the English department shrugged and sighed, “These Easterners know no English.”

English is the language of the post-Cold War era. This should pose no problems of communication between East and West Germany; but it seems a knowledge of English, or the lack of it, has become a metaphor, in certain circles in Germany, for a figurative barrier, a silence that keeps, like Isherwood’s “shadow line”, one side from the other. Most of the teachers at Magdeburg’s English department are, indeed, “Westerners”, and, thus, commuters. Just as Reini’s life was an intersection in my journey, my journey must have been an intersection in the constant travelling of which his life is composed, the weekly to-ing and fro-ing on the autobahn between West Berlin and what he once laughingly called, in a moment of levity, “darkest Europe”.

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