I’ve read a number of novels that take place in and around Berlin. None have approached the scale, ambition, and literary achievement of Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. I had heard of the TV series but didn’t get around to reading the book until recently.
On the surface, Berlin Alexanderplatz is about a down-on-his-luck Berliner named Franz Biberkopf. But really, the book is about Berlin itself, and the working class milieu to which Biberkopf belongs. When the novel opens, it’s some time in the 1920s and Franz has just been released from prison for killing his girlfriend.
He wanders in a daze through the packed streets, rides “the electric” tram, falls in with rough characters. As readers, we’re subjected to the same sights, sounds, smells, and feelings as Franz. We experience the city through him.
We follow Franz as he searches for work, drifts between girlfriends, and moves around in the rough underbelly of the neighborhood in and around Alexanderplatz. We listen to conversations in rough, incredibly vivid “Berlinerish” slang.
To achieve the effect, Döblin often writes the conversations between characters phonetically. “Kannst du…” becomes “kanste…” and so on. It takes a bit of getting used to, but the result is magnificent: I felt like I was inhabiting Franz’s world right next to him.
Through the cold winters, Franz finds work selling newspapers, selling other small items. He must stand outside in the midst of bustling crowds, some wearing fur jackets and heading to big department stores, like Kaufhaus Tietz.
Franz eventually falls in with a group of criminals, robbing stores and re-selling the goods. During one of his escapades, he’s severely injured and has his arm amputated. The physical amputation is a metaphor for the general degradation that Franz feels. In 1920s Berlin, there’s no way out, no way up for people like him.
Franz doesn’t think he deserves redemption. He doesn’t look for charity. He doesn’t engage in politics at all - not really, anyway. We spot him once wearing a swastika armband, but it doesn’t last. We see him again at a communist event, but that doesn’t stick either. Franz is a lost soul, wandering the streets and plazas of Alexanderplatz.
Knowing what happened in Germany just a few years after the novel ends makes me ponder the destiny of Franz Biberkopf and those like him. How would they have reacted to the Nazi government? Did they survive the war?
Alexanderplatz itself was pulverized in 1945, like much of the rest of Berlin. The buildings where Franz ate, drank, and slept were all (probably) destroyed. Where did those people go? Did they survive?
Alexanderplatz looks a lot different now than it did during the 1920s. Wartime destruction combined with communist urban planning and 21st century mass tourism has transformed it into, let’s be honest, a pretty terrible place. It’s a vast concrete expanse ringed with shopping malls and kitschy tourist shops. Actual Berliners rarely go there. Kind of like Times Square in New York without the billboards.
I wonder what Franz Biberkopf would think of the place now.