Twenty Writers: Unstuck in Dresden

See the Introduction for more information on “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books.” The current list of reviews and essays is located at Continuing Series.


Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Early one August morning in 2011, I set off for Dresden. I was lodging at a surprisingly spacious budget hotel located in what was once known as East Berlin. I showered, snagged a Brötchen from the breakfast table downstairs, and rode public transit to Berlin’s central train station, the Hauptbahnhof.

The Hauptbahnhof was a modest-sized transportation hub with a grand planar green-glass facade and crystal strands of staircases and escalators within. A number of national and international rail lines passed through the station on all levels.

In contrast to its modernity, the area surrounding the Hauptbahnhof appeared bombed-out. Weedy lots and half-built (or half-demolished) concrete structures of uncertain purpose surrounded the station, even though it was located in the dead center of town, and not the outskirts where this sort of thing might be excused.

In 2011, dereliction was not unusual in the eastern reaches of Berlin. The area that was once West Berlin was clean, modern, bustling—as sleek and efficient as the capitalism it had boasted of to its neighbors during the Cold War. What was once East Berlin was largely a patchwork of low-lying buildings, many redolent of America’s 1970s aesthetics bereft of its most garish extremes. Anything not man-made was lush and overgrown from the humid summer. (Berlin, my travel guide explained, was built on a swamp.) Buildings with blasted-out holes in the plaster stood here and there in East Berlin, the rubble having been hauled off but the damage not repaired. As I learned from the natives, Berlin was still recovering from forty years of Communist rule, where counterrevolutionary ideals like aesthetics and grounds-keeping were not prioritized.

Having visited Munich a few times, I would bet a stein of beer that the meticulous, efficient Bavarians would never have allowed for this situation to sustain. For any undeveloped lot, the Bavarians would have installed a beer garden or a park or some nice shopping. Munich is the neighbor who keeps their lawn trim and packs away the Christmas decorations on Boxing Day; Berlin is the family with the half-built additions and a porch painted a color intended for the whole house, but Dad never got around to finishing the job. It’s for those reasons I found what was once East Berlin relaxed and livable.

Having visited my favorite beer garden in all of Europe the night before, I didn’t wake quite early enough. I missed my train to Dresden by precious minutes, in part due to being lost in the Hauptbahnhof‘s Escher maze of escalators. Running up to the platform for Dresden, the train chugging eastward, I wondered if this was a bit of Vonnegutian fate, the kind of nondescript event that leads to major ramifications for the character later in the book.

Literary tourism

My visit to Dresden bore some emotional weight. It would probably be my only chance to see the city Kurt Vonnegut wrote about so prominently in Slaughterhouse-Five.

Literary tourism is a recurring compulsion in my life. I’ve sought out Hemingway’s Key West house and the six-toed cats who drink from an old bar urinal in the garden; Henry Miller’s ramshackle Big Sur cabin, surprisingly spartan for a hedonist; Beowulf under glass at the British Museum in London, a city practically designed for literary tourism, right down to the pub reproducing Sherlock Holmes’ parlor; even Mark Twain’s cabin in California’s Gold Country where he reportedly penned “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”. Literary tourism has even made its way into some of my stories, in particular “A Concordance of One’s Life”, and to a lesser extent Everywhere Man.

With only one more free day in Germany, I woke the next morning even earlier and made it to the Hauptbahnhof with time to spare. As my train left the platform, I was treated to the very European experience of an Italian family arguing with the unflappable German conductor over seats, some business about assigned seating and Second Class. As English was the common language between the two parties, I was able to follow the argument. The conductor eventually conceded and moved on, leaving the Italian family to overtake the compartment. The mother pointed out to me that there wasn’t enough room for all of them, and so I moved to the next compartment.

The train ride from Berlin to Dresden took two and a half hours. If I’d traveled the day before, I had planned to find a cheap room to crash in for the night. Now I had to make the same return trip in the late afternoon via the last train out of Dresden to Berlin.

The Slaughterhouse-Five Tour

In a different book, Kurt Vonnegut wrote

Ah, God, what an ugly city Illium is!

“Ah, God,” says Bokonon, “what an ugly city every city is!”

I was curious to see what had sprung up in Dresden’s place after the end of the war, after the firebombing. I was also curious how Vonnegut’s book was now received by the city. I had it in my mind that Slaughterhouse-Five was a literary gift to the City of Dresden, a rather lengthy handbill proclaiming to a cold and unaware world the war crime they’d suffered. Much like my trip to Hiroshima, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Everything I’d read about both cities focused on one subject: utter destruction.

I wondered if there were Slaughterhouse-Five tours of Dresden. If I ran a Slaughterhouse-Five tour of Dresden, I would dress up like Billy Pilgrim and pretend to be unstuck in time. I would start the tour with this:

“And now our tour concludes. So it goes.”

And end the tour with this:

“Welcome! My name is Billy Pilgrim. Today I’m your guide for the Slaughterhouse-Five tour. On your left is our first sight…”

For all my planning back at home, it never occurred to me to attempt to locate the actual slaughterhouse Vonnegut and the other American POWs huddled in during the Allies’ firebombing of the city, safe while Dresden burned to nubs and ash. I assumed (wrongly, it turns out) that the slaughterhouse had been demolished after the war. I focused on the city center itself rather than striking out to the industrial areas in search of the structure that saved Vonnegut’s life and changed American postwar literature.

On the last leg of my train ride, two young women joined me in the compartment, college-aged summer hitchhikers making their way across Europe. They hauled mountaineering backpacks with sleeping rolls, enough gear to scale K2. Minutes before the Dresden station, we struck up a conversation. They were from Switzerland.

“I’m American,” I introduced myself.

“We know,” they told me. Whenever foreigners know my nationality it’s a little discomfiting, like meeting someone who can read my thoughts.

They told me they headed to Amsterdam. When they said “Amsterdam” they giggled between themselves.

“I’m going to Dresden,” I told them.

“Why?” they asked me, honestly perplexed.

Anatomy of a church

Dresden workers' muralOn my walk from Dresden’s station to its Old Town I passed a reminder of the city’s time under the German Democratic Republic. A broad mural spanned the second story of an otherwise unremarkable building. In the town I grew up, such a building would have been the advertising offices of the local newspaper or something equally mundane. This is what I expected to find in Dresden: postwar Socialist-drab architecture erected in a hurry and on the cheap.

The building was forgettable but the mural was not. Like so much social realism to come out of the Communist bloc, it features idealized caricatures of workers—women in head scarves, men in Trotsky hats—raising their sickles and rifles in a show of unity. The mural stood over a wide walkway, where it could be admired as easily as it could be ignored.

DresdenOnce past the mural and its uninspiring canvas, I discovered Dresden was not ugly. In fact, the city was charming. Although seventy years had passed since the firebombing, plenty of time to rebuild, I did not expect to walk into such a minute jewel. With East Berlin as my primer to post-Communist Germany, I presumed Dresden would be a place of unkempt parks, weedy lots, and an opera house or civic chamber destroyed by the Allies and left as rubble with a statue before it memorializing the carnage.

Strange then to see Dresden work so hard to appear as the city it was five hundred years ago, more medieval than mid-century. Its stout Old Town proudly exhibited a collection of limestone spires and copper-green cupolas. In the Middle Ages, labor was cheap, free when pressed into service by the Church. In the 20th century it wasn’t so cost-effective to refurnish a city to its fifteenth-century original without making do with mass-produced raw material—the financial temptation to erect a Disney reproduction of the original must have been great. There was nothing fake or inauthentic about Dresden’s Old Town as far as I could see.

Dresden churchThe rebuild was so complete, so meticulous, at first blush I wondered if anything remained to mark the firebombing that melted this city down to hot rubble in 1945. I found one, a block of permanently charred masonry standing in a cobblestone platz before a stunning Baroque church, Dresden’s Frauenkirche. A wordless plaque indicated where the block had fallen from the cupola above during the firebombing. In the human anatomy of the Frauenkirche, the masonry block fell from its heart.

(I know now that many memorials for the Dresden firebombing exist, some in the city and others elsewhere in Germany. Some only exist on the Internet as frameworks for remembering. I didn’t visit Dresden to search out statues and plaques and modern art commissioned by governmental panels, but I did expect to more of these markers than I encountered.)

Hundreds of miles from the Berlin swamp, Dresden offered a cloudless temperate day, the air off the river smelling fresh. The church platz was ringed by bistros lively with business. Vendor carts served cold beer as fast as mugs could be filled. Standing aside the masonry block and surveying the scene, I developed a theory: Dresden understood that remembering is different than never forgetting.

Of course

My own failings hampered my time in Dresden. I don’t speak a lick of German. Unlike Berlin, where an English-speaker can manage thanks to a mostly-multilingual population, few people in Dresden spoke my native tongue.

Rendered all but mute, I pointed to the beer tap when I wanted a beer, pointed to the menu when I wanted a brat, and did my best to pronounce Bitte? and Danke schoen for everyone I had dealings with.

At one of the beer carts off the church platz I met an English-speaking couple. Not only did they speak English, they were American. I did not ask the obvious questions. With a beer in hand and the sun on my back, I was incurious to know where they were from or who employed them.

She was talkative. He seemed totally uninterested in conversation. She asked why I came to Dresden.

Slaughterhouse-Five, of course,” I said. That “of course” made me out as a snoot.

She searched the air above her. “Is that a book?” She asked her husband if he’d read it. He murmured “Never heard of it” and drank more beer.

I told her she probably read it in high school. She couldn’t remember.

Fox tossing

When I asked why they’d visited Dresden, she explained it was a layover on their bus trip to Amsterdam. She giggled when she said “Amsterdam.” His attention never left his beer.

“Have you visited the castle?” she asked me. Their package tour included a ticket to Dresden Castle, now a museum. “Their king was the King of Poland. Twice.”

“Augustus the Strong,” her husband said, still not looking at me.

“Why was he called ‘the Strong?'” I asked.

“Because he was strong,” the husband said. “He could dead lift hundreds of pounds.” A bit excited, he finally turned on his stool to face me. “And he was a master at this game called fox tossing.”

“What’s fox tossing?”

“You throw foxes as high into the air as you can.” So animated, his beer was sloshing.

Dresden?

I trudged back to the train station passing the workers’ mural once more. Now I saw how out of place it was in Dresden, this relic of propaganda today apropos of nothing. Like Communism, it was not erased and it was not forgotten, nor was it intrusive or even damned, but simply left to be, a curiosity.

On the train ride back, I experienced a conversation I would have twice more in Berlin, all with Germans. When I mentioned visiting Dresden, the Germans’ response was always “Why?” They expressed in their best English that Dresden was a boring town with nothing to draw a tourist, especially one who’d traveled so far.

I asked each if they’d heard of Kurt Vonnegut or Slaughterhouse-Five. None of them knew of him, which wasn’t terribly surprising. I don’t read German novelists, after all. The name confused them, though, since Vonnegut is distinctly Germanic. I assured them he was American.

I told the Germans Vonnegut had written one of the greatest English-language novels of the past hundred years. “It’s about Dresden. He was there during the firebombing.”

Only one of the three knew of Dresden’s destruction. (They were younger than me, I should add.) All were bewildered at the idea of a novel about Dresden—”Dresden?“—especially a novel important enough to be taught in American schools and universities.

It floored them. “You’ve read a book about Dresden?

Imagine the situation reversed. Imagine learning that every student in Germany read a novel about one of Bokonon’s ugly cities: Illium, or Bakersfield, or Walla Walla, or Duluth. Imagine if Germans eagerly traveled to Duluth because it was featured in a popular novel. Duluth?

The second bewildered German I encountered—”Dresden?“—sat across from me. We were at a picnic table in my favorite beer garden in all of Europe. It was muggy in Berlin and nine o’clock at night, strings of light bulbs threaded through the tree branches. When I arrived at the Hauptbahnhof, I went straight to the beer garden.

We were joined by an American who’d emigrated to Germany to marry. He had a wife and a child, and had carved out a rather enviable life in what was once East Berlin. The first time we met he told me he never wanted to return to America.

“What are you two talking about?” He had brought us fresh mugs of beer.

“He went to Dresden today,” the German told him.

“Sure,” the newly-minted Berliner said as he distributed the beer. “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

Other books in the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” series.

Deutschland 83, SDI, and the birth of the modern era

Deutschland 83Tonight a new television series premieres on the Sundance Network, Deutschland 83. My cable package doesn’t include Sundance, so I won’t be able to watch the show in its first run, but so far I like what I’ve read about it. More than that, it’s exciting to read about its premise and development, as much of it reminds me of the impetuses that drove me to write Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People.

The Cold War

Deutschland 83 and Edward Teller Dreams are both Cold War stories featuring individuals caught on the front line of a war that had no front lines. For Deutschland 83, the main character is Martin Rauch, an East German Stasi officer sent to West Germany under cover. For Edward Teller Dreams, teenager Gene Harland is the son of a nuclear physicist tasked to develop the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a pie-in-the-sky system to deter nuclear attack that was immediately dubbed “Star Wars” by its critics.

It can’t be overstated how permanent the Cold War appeared in 1983. The idea that in six short years the Berlin Wall would fall, taking with it the Soviet Union and much of the Eastern Bloc, was so unthinkable it wasn’t even contemplated by science fiction or Hollywood. They preferred to traffic in darker visions of Soviet domination, such as Red Dawn, the Russians’ technological superiority in The Hunt for Red October, and 1983’s scare-TV sensation The Day After. Even MTV got into the act: 1983’s pop hit “99 Luftballons” was about a toy balloons starting World War III. Every Child of the 80s remembers Reagan and Chernenko boxing it out in Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s 1983 video for “Two Tribes”.

With each passing year of nuclear stalemate, the saber-rattling rhetoric, the occasional act of aggression that had to be negotiated down, the Cold War increasingly looked like Orwell’s vision of perpetual war. Of course, that comparison asks if the Cold War was ginned up to control populations or was a legitimate stand-in for irreconcilable differences between nations. Personally, I think it was a bit of both.

The birth of the modern era

I was also surprised to read that Deutschland 83 is set in “1983, the birth of the modern era”. Although I chose 1983 for Edward Teller Dreams because it coordinated with the year SDI’s development started, in earlier revisions I dabbled with setting the novel later in time, in 1984 or even 1985. The more I researched 1983, I realized I had to set my novel in that year and none other. (I’ll discuss more about this in a future post.)

Retailing in 1983 for $9,995 ($24,000 in 2015 dollars), the Apple Lisa mysteriously failed to capture the public's imagination.

Retailing in 1983 for $9,995 ($24,000 in 2015 dollars), the Apple Lisa mysteriously failed to capture the public’s imagination.

The developments in 1983 belie the stereotype of the Reagan years as drab, conservative, and conformist. In hindsight, the 1980s were remarkably dynamic, with 1983 perhaps the most so. SDI, Apple’s Lisa (the first personal computer sold with a graphic display and a mouse), the first reports of the AIDS virus and the solidifying of the gay rights movement, even the birth of the Internet on January 1st (the story’s more complicated than that, but roll with it). 1983 was more than an eventful year, it was a prescient year.

(And it was a great time to be alive if you were a reader: The Mists of Avalon, The Robots of Dawn, John Le Carre’s Little Drummer Girl, and Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit were all published in 1983. The Color Purple was published the year before. William Gibson’s Neuromancer would be published in 1984, following six productive years of groundbreaking science fiction short stories.)

Even in the context of the Cold War, 1983 may have been more consequential than 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In March 1983, Reagan declared the Soviet Union to be an “evil empire” and announced SDI, “a shield, not a sword”. In August the Soviet Union shot down civilian jetliner Korean Air Flight 007 and ignited an international uproar. All of this, as well as forty years of East vs. West posturing, culminated in the Soviet Union almost launching all-out nuclear war in November when it misread an American troop exercise as first-strike preparations. This series of “isolated” events—microaggressions on the macro scale— were not easily contained and soothed via formal diplomatic channels, the exact type of unchecked escalation feared the most during the Cold War.

Writing into near-history

When publishing an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or another distributor, the service asks you to list two or three genres to help categorize the work. While every author feels their novel transcends such pedantic pigeonholing—only partial sarcasm there—I’ve usually selected “historical fiction” for Edward Teller Dreams. It’s a problematic label, however, and not because I’m being snooty.

Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People by Jim NelsonThe term “historical fiction” evokes costume drama and so-called simpler times of clear-cut morality and rigid social standings. Most historical fiction book review web sites will only consider work that’s set at least fifty, seventy-five, even a hundred years in the past. Edward Teller Dreams is set thirty-two years ago (and was less than twenty years in the past when I first started writing it). Even with all I’ve described above, it’s hard to say the world has changed that much. I easily admit there’s more similarities between 1983 and 2015 than there are differences.

But even in writing this one novel I uncovered a number of obstacles with setting a story in near-history, and I suspect the writers of Deutschland 83 faced them as well. Show creator Anna Winger says “The great privilege is it’s living history. People are still around and they want to talk about it.” I would say this privilege also nods towards its challenges.

In interviews with authors who pen historical fiction, there’s much discussion about research, authenticity, understanding the period, understanding moires and daily language, and so forth. Some historical fiction authors even go so far to dress in period clothing to better understand their subjects. Me? I threw on a T-shirt and a pair of corduroy jeans and—voila—welcome to exotic California, 1983.

But I’ll go to go out on a limb and say writing near-history is equally challenging to writing “real” historical fiction, and maybe more so. Ask someone what they think of the 1880s and you’ll receive silence, or maybe “I don’t know, why do you ask?” Ask someone what they think of the 1980s and you’ll get an earful. To retell near-history, you’re confronting people’s personal memories as well as the collective memory of our recorded culture.

I don’t think Edward Teller Dreams is a bold stab at righting some historical wrong, or rewriting the past in order to spotlight silenced voices. It doesn’t sound like Deutschland 83 is out to serve historical justice either. I do feel there are many stories of that era—of every era—that, if taken at face-value as told in good faith, will alter our understanding of history as well as our present. To retell stories from the 1880s is fine, but to retell the state of the world of the 1980s is to dispute our perception of the world today.

Quote

Up at The Tusk, “This Shit Ain’t Ever Going to Work”

Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People-10_1410The Tusk has posted a new piece of mine about the tortured history of my new novel Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People. A sample:

And how could I forget my friend’s father returning home one afternoon from work, tie loose and hair splayed, bedraggled from wrestling some top-secret problem? Most likely not a problem scientific in nature, but bureaucratic. Thirteen years of age or so, a computer geek-in-training (largely because I wanted to grow up and write video games, unaware that a prerequisite for writing video games is to have never grown up), I was fascinated with the engineering problems these nuclear scientists must have faced every day. Sitting cross-legged on the lime-green living room shag playing Axis & Allies (and losing badly), I asked how his latest project was proceeding.

He leaned down to my ear and whispered: “Jim, this shit ain’t ever going to work.” Then he went to the kitchen and cracked open a beer from the refrigerator. By “this shit” he meant the LLNL’s latest budget-busting project, the Strategic Defense Initiative, a la Star Wars, a system of laser-equipped satellites promised to protect our country from ICBM attack and end the Cold War. You know, that Cold War, the mad weapons race the laboratory at Livermore had enabled and fostered and contributed to over the prior thirty years.

Read the whole thing at The Tusk. And while you’re at it, read Nate Waggoner’s brilliant dissection of how authors’ are learning to burnish their own laurels in today’s world of social media and independent publishing, “On Self-Promotion”.