Saturday, March 8, 2008

Real Travel


Sometimes you have to open portals in time as well as space. So eventually I traveled back to Berlin myself to search for more intangible responses. I walked down the streets that my main character, Hannah Vogel, strode in my imagination, or what’s left of them. Many of the locations in my book were flattened in World War II. And to make matters worse, some were never rebuilt, but were paved over and had a giant wall built through them for 28 years. But I prevailed upon a Berliner school friend as beautiful and determined as the city itself. She took me on a tour of the major locations in my book on a hot summer day in 2006. That’s when we moved into the sixth sense.

Hannah’s apartment? Gone. Her office? Still there and recently restored. It’s closer in appearance to where she worked than at any time since 1931, when she typed her make believe news stories there. Eerie, but very cool.

But eeriest of all was the gay bar El Dorado. It’s where Hannah’s brother Ernst, a drag queen decades before we invented the term, mesmerized audiences with his singing. The Nazis closed the actual bar after the elections in 1933, and, not skilled at recognizing irony, turned it into a political headquarter.

In the 1990s the bar reopened. When I ordered a Berliner weisse beer, my old college favorite, they only had raspberry red shots. I laughed, because that is all that Ernst would have ever ordered anyway, red being his signature color. At last, Ernst’s old haunt was restored, not as it was in real life, but as I invented it with him in my novel. Goosebumps raised on my arms as I studied the oil paintings that lined the walls. Reproductions of Georg Grosz’s Metropolis, each was a deja-vu-inducing scene from my book. El Dorado today looks less like it did in 1931, and more like a representation of the world I created in my novel. I wasn’t the only one who fell in love with Berlin in 1931 and tried to recreate it whole.

Again I sit on my lanai. This time I must imagine an even darker Berlin. In The Night of the Long Knives, Hannah and I have been drawn into the murderous Berlin of 1934. I step into its shadows. In spite of devoting years and pages to it, Berlin still won’t let me go.

Where would you travel to walk in the footsteps of your favorite literary character? What would be changed? What would be the same? And, most importantly, what would you snack on?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I would love to ride along with James Herriot in All Creatures Great And Small. I read it once as a little girl, but it is still one of my favorites. We'd probably eat a hearty English breakfast, then head off to tend to the country animals, great and small.

Kaz

rebecca cantrell said...

All things wise and wonderful, like Kaz! I wouldn't mind riding along with James Herriot, as long as I didn't have to deliver a breached calf. And I might like staying home joking about with his boss's brother Tristan more. That guy was funny, and never seemed to have to get up to his armpit in a cow...
Thanks, Kaz!

Anonymous said...

...or get dressed up in a rubber suit just to hand his boss a syringe...

Kaz