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.

Twenty Writers: Yoshihiro Tatsumi in retrospect

See my Introduction for more information about the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” project. The current list of reviews and essays may be found at the “Twenty Writers” home page.


Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Tokyo, 2010. (Yasu. CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Tokyo, 2010. (Yasu. CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Last night I learned Japanese manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi had passed away at the age of 79. Revered as the grandfather of gekiga (a darker form of manga, akin to graphic novels or alternative comics here in the United States), Tatsumi was known in Japan for his urban, noirish comics featuring a gamut of characters, from gangsters and back alley hoods to college students and office workers. Only in the last ten years did he became well-known in the North America (and perhaps elsewhere) due to new translations of his work published yearly by Drawn & Quarterly and edited under the guiding hand of Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve, Shortcomings).

I don’t think I can express how much I enjoyed Tatsumi’s work or how his comics encouraged and shaped my own writing. I did not come to his work via manga (a form I honestly don’t know much about) but rather by accident while browsing the shelves at a local bookstore. The cover—a lone man in a raincoat receding down a seedy nighttime alleyway, his back to the viewer—led me to pick up The Push Man and Other Stories and read the first story, then the next, then the next. I promptly purchased the copy, returned home, and read the entire collection in one sitting. My only disappointment was that none of his other work was readily available in the U.S. at the time. (My novella Everywhere Man gets its name from Tatsumi’s Push Man, and takes a few other cues as well.)

It was remarkable, this voice from Japan whose stories respected their source culture while also digging up explosive emotional power directed at that same culture. Tatsumi’s minimalist style and quiet stories of “average” people are often compared to Raymond Carver, but they’re also deeply infused with American noir and crime fiction. Themes of sexual frustration and violence and emasculation are rampant in Push Man and elsewhere. His characters often seem like Japanese counterparts to Jim Thompson’s West Texas oilcatters and door-to-door salesmen: disposable men on the edge of breakdown or abandonment, with few choices other than to jump on the accelerator and push through their troubles rather than backpedal out of them. They rarely succeed. Tatsumi’s characters live in cramped rooms, cramped even by Japanese standards, usually only large enough for a futon and a hot plate. They sludge through dead-end jobs while watching from afar Japan’s miraculous economic boom of the 1960s and 70s. They aren’t preoccupied with death, they fear being erased. I have the idea these stories were intended for the same kind of audience Jim Thompson wrote for, young lonely men who felt shut-out from the American—or Japanese—Dream.

The Push Man and other stories (2005)

The Push Man and other stories (2005)

When recommending Tatsumi to friends, my trouble has always been what not to recommend. Of Drawn & Quarterly’s offerings, perhaps only the autobiographical A Drifting Life and Black Blizzard (penned when Tatsumi was 21 and the source of some embarrassment for him when reprinted) are reserved for Tatsumi completists. Otherwise the English editions we have available represent an impressive body of work which, as I understand it, remains an incomplete record of his full output.

In Push Man‘s stories, each limited to eight pages, Tatsumi deftly compresses grim situations down to their bare minimum and yet manages to leave himself the occasional panel for bleak panoramas of late-1960s Tokyo, its late-night bars and red light districts and walk-up ramen stands. The artwork is sometimes cartoony—even clunky—but the emotional force of his characters’ desolation carries through page after page. In later collections (Abandon the Old in Tokyo, Good-Bye, and Midnight Fishermen) the young men’s magazines Tatsumi was writing for opened up more pages for his work. His pen improves in these collections, trending toward photorealism and employing heavier use of shadow and contrast. These tightly-wound tales sometimes suffer from the breathing room four or eight additional pages allowed, but each collection stores more than a few gems.

A Drifting Life (2009)

A Drifting Life (2009)

Tatsumi’s autobiographical A Drifting Life is his most ambitious work translated to English, and perhaps his most ambitious work of all. Intense but careful to withhold the most personal details of his life from the reader, Tatsumi lays out his formative years and how he entered the manga field while in elementary school. Each stage of his life is a new round of jousting with manga as an art form, tackling a narrative outlet he found liberating and yet restrictive and overly commercial all the same. I wish more time was spent on the side story of the manga rental industry in postwar Japan and its power to create and demolish artistic reputations. Some of the editors and publishers Tatsumi fought with sound straight out of Hollywood’s star system, right down to the shoddy treatment writers on both sides of the Pacific endured to produce consumable work week after week.

Still jousting with the strictures of manga at the age of 74, Tatsumi published Fallen Words, eight “moral comedies” inspired by rakugo, a venerable form of Japanese performance where a seated speaker narrates a story with a fan and a cloth as props. Rakugo performers will often tell stories that have been repeated for over a hundred years; the art is in the retelling and voices and mannerisms and novel uses of the props themselves. Tatsumi took this verbal art form and produced visual versions that depicted them in their original Meiji- and Edo-era settings: “I attempted to take rakugo, where laughter is supreme, and to tell the stories in the visual language of gekiga,” an art form not known for its comedy. Some stories rely on twist endings that don’t quite work, some on puns that only makes sense to Japanese speakers, but the book as a whole demonstrates the kind of experimentation Tatsumi was willing to engage in right to the end of his career.

Fallen Words (2009)

Fallen Words (2009)

When I was a graduate student teaching undergraduates creative writing, I included one story from Push Man as required reading. “Make-Up” remains my personal favorite of his work. It involves a young office worker living with an older woman, a bar hostess. When she’s gone at night, the young man dons a kimono, applies her cosmetic, and takes to downtown Tokyo passing as a woman. Not only is it remarkable the ease with which Tatsumi tells this nuanced story (another woman falls in love with him as a woman), it’s also surprising the sensitivity and compassion he offers his main character without falling into bathos. Some of the students tripped up on the simple lines of Tatsumi’s pen, some had trouble with the quietness (entire pages lacking a line of dialogue), but many gripped that something interesting and surprising was going on, right up to the ambiguous ending that opens up rather than shuts down the story.

Tatsumi’s work is often criticized as heavy-handed, cliched, and moralizing, which is arguable for his earlier output (such as Push Man) but is not so easily asserted with Drifting Life or Fallen Words. My response is to look at the boldness of the subject matter, the narrative distillation of complicated situations converted to deceptively simple panels on the page, and his early mastery of story structure. Each page of “Make-Up” is a self-contained scene, as perfect as a zen koan. It’s harder than it looks. That’s what I think Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s detractors are missing. This was not a natural talent who slipped into the form with ease, but one who struggled with it and attacked its firmaments, sometimes with mediocrity, sometimes brilliantly, but always thinking of his next push forward.

More on Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s passing: Adrian Tomine, Paul Gravett, Bleeding Cool.

Ring in the New Year: FREE ebooks on Kobo and Apple iBooks

A Concordance of One's Life by Jim NelsonFor the next month (or so), my short story collection A Concordance of One’s Life and novella Everywhere Man will be available to download for FREE on Kobo and Apple’s iBooks. That’s right, free, as in no money. Get ’em now:

A Concordance of One’s Life: Kobo / iBooks
Everywhere Man: Kobo / iBooks

Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People by Jim Nelson
While you’re at it, be sure to download my latest novel Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People. It’s not quite free but available for the cut-rate bargain of 99 cents on Kobo, iBooks, and Amazon.

(Why aren’t those first two books free on Amazon? Amazon won’t allow me to price my ebooks for anything less than $0.99 without entering into an exclusive arrangement with them, which I won’t do.)

Happy New Year!

UPDATE: I’ve extended the free book giveaway through February. They’re also now available for free on Smashwords (Concordance, Everywhere Man). Grab ’em up, folks.