Lilacs were blooming in Cracauerplatz. The Visitor felt disoriented and alone, an outsider, lost without a map. Her atrophied German stuck in her throat. Thirty-one years had elapsed between her last stay in Germany (for an ill-fated job in Frankfurt) and her return to Berlin in late middle age. The city struck her as post-apocalyptic—flat and featureless except for its rivers, its lakes, its legions of bicyclists. She found herself nameless: nameless in crowds, nameless alone. Another disappearance in a city with a long history of disappearance acts.
The Visitor’s arrival in late April wasn’t auspicious. Her luggage was lost for two days. The skies remained overcast. Their vast bleakness heightened her malaise. The apartment in Charlottenburg, on the west side of Berlin, was exactly what she’d wanted: a white cube with nondescript furnishings and a bedroom barely big enough to sleep in. A modest balcony overlooked the Kaiserdamm. The U-bahn was a block away, as was the Lietzensee, a picturesque city lake. After all her careful planning, every- thing was as she expected except for this: her staggering loneliness.
Why had she come? It boiled down to a story A. told her when they’d first met, at a dinner in her honor at a central New Jersey university. A. was Cuban-American, like her, and a writer. He was fluent in German and a fan of Berlin, often spending lengthy sojourns there. A. mentioned that after the Wall fell, he managed to reconstitute his aristocratic grand- mother’s vintage Spanish library from the used books stalls near the Bode Museum. The Visitor was hopelessly intrigued.
The two friends spoke often of political upheavals and the displace- ments of war, of revolution, the unlikely bedfellows these produced—most specifically, the human fallout from Cuba’s long association with the Soviet bloc. All the flotsam and detritus of history, like the Visitor’s Cuban-Russian cousin, Vladimir—someone she’d never met—who was born to her maternal uncle’s first marriage to a Muscovite engineer in the 1960s. It was stories like these that the Visitor hoped to find in Berlin.
But the initial clarity of her mission gave way to a paralyzing vague- ness during her first days in the city. Was it the jet lag? The long pale nights that seemed to stretch endlessly to dawn? The moths bumping against her windows like insistent ghosts? The Germans’ radiant disregard of her? Here she was just another hooded crow perched in a linden tree.
True, there was much weighing her down: the end of her second marriage to a cellist from Iowa; the final rupture from her vicious mother, whom she’d indecorously called madre de mierda on her way out the door. A backwash of memories she preferred to forget. She no longer had a home, or a homeland. She no longer had a mother, nor was she an active mother herself (her twenty- year-old daughter was happily studying in Barcelona). This was her life now: unoccupied, disconnected, alone, invisible. Somehow she’d imagined a grander liberation.
As a child the Visitor had kept diaries, which her mother read during the brief interludes when she wasn’t obsessing over her husband’s infidelities. No matter that the Visitor (when little) had hidden the diaries under her mattress, or the lining of her winter coat. Before long, she retaliated by planting false stories, fantasizing about a life without her mother in it. She’d understood even then that her best self was her illicit self, the one that provoked the mother, the one the mother couldn’t own. So, no, the Visitor decided, she wouldn’t keep a journal in Berlin, or write about herself in the first person. Rather, she would indulge the luxury of a more distant perspective.
Her wanderings in Berlin began tentatively, her encounters awkward and forced. The isolation felt physical, three-dimensionally oppressive, but it fueled a manic movement. The Visitor walked everywhere, often logging upward of ten miles a day. She explored the city, eavesdropped on conversations, walked off her anxiety, all the while lighting a match to her present, reminding herself that she was alive and free. More strenuously still, she signed up for a Zumba class with a former Olympian speed skater, then for water aerobics with octogenarians who left her gasping for air.
The Visitor returned again and again to the zoo, where she practiced her rusty German on the cheetahs and polar bears. To her surprise, she felt most at home in the aquarium. For hours she watched the lolling puffer fish with their bulging cartoon eyes. Officious iridescent taxi fish patrolled the perimeter, tap-tapping against the glass. There were stick insects and locusts, slugs, obese water snakes. The otherwise unremarkable “false map” turtles intrigued her with their evocative name. We’re all exiles here, she thought.
On her twelfth day in Berlin, a young father asked the Visitor for directions in German, to which she correctly replied. A turning point. Soon she’d be talking to people in parks, at museums, along the Spree River, in the city’s many acres of outdoor cafés. Thus, her mission began.
By the end of World War II, 91 of the 3,715 animals at the Berlin Zoo had survived. These included two lions, an Asian bull elephant, a cackle of hyenas, a hippopotamus bull, ten hamadryas baboons, and a rare black stork. My father, Klaus Bauer, had been the zoo’s last keeper before he was called off to war. This was after a severe firebombing had boiled alive the remaining crocodiles and tortoises at the aquarium, and a puma escaped through the flames, only to be shot by a frightened housewife in Lützowplatz. Oppor tunists benefited from the destruction, partook of crocodile-tail steaks and fashioned sausages from the charred bear meat. But the rats are what most thrived in Berlin.
Thank you for accompanying me this afternoon, Kind Visitor. I do enjoy a walk through the Tiergarten, even on drizzly days.
Once, I saw an old man club a duck to death with his cane at this very spot. It was just after the war, and, next to him, on a burnt-out tank, was a fly-poster advertising dance lessons. The times were extraordinary, rivaling anything I’ve ever read in books. The zoo is near here, in the southwestern corner of the park. I permit myself entrance every month or so—nobody bothers charging me—to visit the tropical aviaries and the lonely polar bears. Perhaps you’ve heard of the cub born in captivity here some years ago? Millions swarmed the zoo to get a glimpse of Baby Knut. Unfortunately, the poor creature collapsed and died after five short years.
Today, I promised to speak to you of my father, and so I shall. My earliest memories of him are at this zoo, where I helped him feed the animals on weekends. How he’d loved the antics of the cockatoos—as cunning as our politicians, he used to say—and the idiosyncrasies of Jupp, the elderly cheetah, who insisted on having his hindquarters scratched with a rake. It was from the cockatoos’ aviary that Vati “borrowed” Miamor, a Cuban Amazon parrot, in order to save it from starvation. But in the commotion of an air raid, Miamor disappeared from our apartment, most likely for someone’s dinner.
When the Reich drafted Vati for an army reserve battalion late in the war, he was arthritic and nearing fifty. You might say that my life—or the heart of it, anyway—stopped on the day he left. A peeling poster on our apartment building showed a woman and boy battling a fire with buckets of water. I pretended that they were Mutti and me, and dreamt about stealing a little wood gas car, too. In my fantasy, I drove us to safety, though I could barely ride a bicycle then. Most nights, we raced into the air-raid shelter, to the shrill sound of sirens. Mutti was profoundly deaf, the result of a childhood fever, and she was no longer pretty to anyone but me. As the bombs fell, she rubbed her sternum as if she were erasing a mistake. Sometimes I feared she’d erase herself altogether.
That winter, we watched the city camouflage itself with false treetops in raised netting and decoy buildings to deceive the British bombers. There were rumors of a fake capital being built to the north, but nobody had seen it. Rumors, Kind Visitor, were what we lived on. My friends and I played in the ruins, when we could, taking turns blowing on a beat-up trumpet we’d found. It was our greatest treasure. On the rare evening when there was no Verdunkle, my mother permitted me, against the rules, to light her incandescent lamp. Its hypnotizing hot wire drew an astonishing variety of moths to its flame.
One day my friend Kuno Schulz triumphantly brought home a hunk of horsemeat. Kriegsglück, everyone said, coveting a bloody piece. War luck. On another occasion, Kuno happened across a dead British pilot whose plane had crashed into a building off Nollendorfplatz. As a crowd cautiously gathered, Kuno stole away with the pilot’s unopened parachute, a windfall of silk for his mother. Later, Frau Schulz bartered swaths of the silk with the other mothers as they busily converted their Nazi flags to Allied ones. Before long, these were hanging from what was left of their balconies.
In the last weeks of the war, Hitler Youth patrolled our neighborhood with rifles, and some of the older boys we knew rode rickety bicycles into battle with Panzerfausts attached to the handlebars. Of them, only Markus Achziger survived—but without his legs.
The day the Russians reached Berlin, my mother gave me a pair of my own unraveling socks embroidered with the number 9. I’d forgotten it was my birthday. For supper, Mutti and I ate nettles soup (though I dreamt every night of mashed potatoes sprinkled with crisp bacon) and prayed to God for mercy. In the final terrifying days of battle, my ordinarily meek mother joined a band of housewives who looted whatever they could. Never mind that such behavior was punishable by death. Kind Visitor, what once had been inconceivable became commonplace; grace and disgrace, one and the same.
I watched camels and shaggy Cossack ponies trudging down Unter den Linden. Russian infantrymen in tunics and fur caps rode gypsy wagons and phaetons and every manner of conveyance. People whispered that the Ivans were lighting campfires in the Reichstag—our Reichstag!—and violating women of all ages. Here, at last, were the savages we’d been taught to fear. That summer, the Americans arrived in their gleaming jeeps. How awestruck we were by the black GIs! We crowded around them for chocolates and chewing gum, which they handed out more freely than the other soldiers.
Miraculously, Vati returned home after the defeat. In our district, I was the only child with a living father. He and I toured what was left of the zoo: the burnt-out elephant house (where a bull had frantically trumpeted the coming doom); the scorched treetops where dozens of monkeys had perished. We spoke of the leopards and panthers, jaguars and apes that had escaped after a particularly bad raid, the snakes slithering through terrified crowds fleeing the fires and bombs. And yet, I felt lucky. Most of my surviving friends were raised by their widowed mothers. Those who’d lost both parents got by as best they could, digging through the rubble, fighting over scraps like wild dogs. Who knew what became of them? Even the savvy Kuno, with his Kriegsglück, disappeared without a trace. Knowing him, he probably ended up in your San Francisco driving a fancy Cadillac.
My father? Kind Visitor, you must understand that, once, Vati had been a man whose happiness had seemed to me as predict- able as the sun. Upon his return, he fell into a catatonic state that was impervious even to Mutti’s devoted ministrations. And the blisters on his feet, the ones he got from his long march home, never healed. Whatever hope we had soured to futility.
At his funeral in 1951, two members of his battalion showed up from Hamburg to pay their respects. Mutti insisted that I show them around the dilapidated zoo. To my surprise, one of the old lions was still alive and weakly roaring. The veterans drank and drank, shedding no light regarding their duties on the Eastern front. Instead they shook their heads dully and took turns clapping me on the back, repeating the same stock phrase: Your father was an honorable man, the most honorable among us.
Sometimes, Kind Visitor, I long to send letters to the past . . . but who would write back?
When I returned to Cuba after five months as a prisoner of war on a German submarine, nobody believed me. Everyone assumed that I’d run away with a girlfriend to Havana or gotten eaten by sharks. I’m telling you there was no trace of me except for Oscarito, my identical twin. Ay, but I see you’re raising an eyebrow already. I’m not convincing you? A good story—and mine is true, I swear it— requires some tilling of the soil beforehand. You can’t just throw a handful of seeds on the ground and expect anything to grow.
Let me try again. It was 1943, and I was the night watchman for an electric-fan factory on a beautiful stretch of Cuban coast— as far east as you can go on the island without falling into the ocean. It was late in May, and a bit hazy. The moon was lighting up the clouds, the air unusually still. I was alone guarding the factory, property of Dr. Faustino Buendía, who, with his eternal scowl, was neither a doctor nor ever had a good day in his life. I was sixteen and had just lost my virginity. Tío Eufemio had arranged it. He made it his business to “break in” all the Cuadra boys at a brothel in Baracoa. I felt proud to have gotten the night watchman job, too; even prouder when I was issued a pistol. En fin, I’d become a man.
Let me tell you that none of these accomplishments served me in the least when those German seamen approached while I dozed at my post. The mosquitoes had pestered me for the first hour of my shift, and then they, too, buzzed off to sleep. The German who woke me spoke a few words of Spanish and assured me they meant no harm. What they needed, he said, gesturing stiffly, were supplies for their vessel: ham, mangoes, coffee, butter, eggs. And, he asked, did I happen to have any rum? This didn’t surprise me. Everyone knew that Cuba produced the best rum in the world. I blinked and rubbed my eyes. I wanted to remember this strange dream to tell Oscarito, who’d probably wave it away, saying, Get to the point, Ernesto! And as usual, I’d say, Dreams don’t have points, hermano!
I told the leader—who introduced himself as Joachim Freyer— that I had two tins of sardines and a hunk of dried beef, which Mami had packed for my dinner. I was happy to share.
“No rum?” He looked crestfallen.
I’d gotten drunk only once—on the night of my visit to the brothel, in fact—but I was careful not to drink on the job. Dr. Buendía had warned, If I catch you with booze, you’re out of here! In any case, I still believed I was dreaming, so when the Germans disarmed me, pointed their weapons at my chest, and demanded that I return with them to their submarine, I resisted.
“I can’t go,” I whined. “Mami will worry.”
When Joachim translated my remarks to the other men, there were belly laughs all around, but nobody lowered their guns. And so—mi madre!—I was taken prisoner. As I said, I remained at sea for five months. It wasn’t easy for me to adjust. My first days onboard I was green from seasickness and lurched around like a borracho. I banged my head on pipes, handwheels, bulkheads, you name it. The crew nicknamed me Bluterguss for all my bruises. The humidity, even for an islander like me, was intolerable. Everything was slimy, wet, moldy, including the food. I felt as if I were trapped in the neck of a bottle.
Soon my homesickness grew worse than my nausea. When I thought of Mami picking pebbles out of a colander of rice, or Oscarito staring up at the rafters from the small straw bed we’d shared, it was all I could do to hold back tears. I dreamt of papayas with lime, fried plantains, coconut ice cream. Once, I woke up to the croaking of Cuban tree frogs and had to shake my head free of the sound. And I swear, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre appeared to me on the stormy seas! Cuba was Germany’s enemy, having sided with the Allies and harbored Jewish refugees. But nobody onboard held this against me.
Most of the crew wasn’t much older than me, but they had long beards and stank like Señora Portuondo’s backyard goats. Happily, they were glad for my company—clapping me on the back, shouting Gut! Gut! for any little thing I accomplished. Even dour Captain Wruck warmed up to me after a while. The U-boat pa- trolled the Eastern seaboard from Newfoundland to the Carib- bean. To my surprise, the Germans regularly snuck ashore on enemy territory—Florida, Virginia, New York—to replenish their supplies and commit acts of sabotage. In July, they blew up an electrical plant on Long Island, and we watched the entire shoreline go dark except for the flames leaping to the skies. An- other time, Joachim brought back a dozen stolen hams still warm from their smoking shed.
The submarine got as far north as the tip of Greenland, where we met up with a secret refueling tanker. The icebergs defied imag- ination—a flotilla of gleaming peaks of all sizes, drifting in the pale green waters, translucent under the twilit summer skies. How did this world exist on the same planet as Cuba?
A host of daily drills and maintenance tasks took up most of our waking hours. I became keenly interested in the fifty-ton storage batteries that kicked into gear whenever the vessel submerged (the hammering diesel engines operated when we surfaced, or when we were at periscope depth, which recharged the batteries). Tobias, the top mechanic, taught me everything he knew about the batteries. Reliable but highly toxic—they leaked poisonous chlorine fumes when damaged—the batteries were the subma- rine’s lifeline as well as a deadly threat. One of the radio opera- tors, Ulf, also took me under his wing and let me listen in on the hydrophone, which could capture the sound of a ship’s propellers seventy miles away.
In the rare quiet hours, I learned to play chess and card games like Döppelkopf and Skat. I taught Ulf and Tobias basic Spanish and learned some German myself—a torturous language, if you ask me.
We had several close calls with British and American destroyers (our U-boat sank over fifty thousand tons of cargo while I was at sea)—not to mention a serious control-room fire. But nothing was so nerve-rattling as when the Allies began using twin-engine patrol bombers against us. The fact that enemy convoys now had their own air defense crushed the Germans’ ideas of U-boat war- fare—and sank dozens of their fleet. In no time, there was a cemetery of iron coffins on the ocean bottom. Nobody, least of all the captain, ever expected to be shouting Flugzeug! on the high seas and then crash-diving for cover.
During one particularly ferocious battle with a British warship, we were trapped for twenty-two hours at a near-hull-crushing depth of 280 meters. The steel shrieked, valves blew, deck plates jumped, and the boat was plunged into complete darkness. Bombs and depth charges detonated above us, sending shockwave after deafening shockwave. The bilges flooded and kept us ankle-deep in water, oil, and piss. Everyone was half-suffocated, shivering, sick with fear. Who knows how many Hail Marys I said? I’m telling you I could feel my heart beating under my tongue! As we waited, condemned, in our underwater tomb, I felt closer to death than to life. Créeme, it was a miracle we survived.
I suppose you could say it wasn’t the worst adventure for a teenage boy. On my seventeenth birthday, the Germans got me good and drunk on what was left of their schnapps and failed mis- erably to sing the Cuban national anthem. As the war grew worse for them—the crew spoke openly of this, grounds for treason if they’d been found out—they agreed, at great risk to themselves, to drop me off back in Cuba instead of surrendering me as a prisoner of war. Had they been caught, every last man would’ve been executed, no questions asked.
Sí, I do believe that my allegiances shifted onboard—not for the Nazis, never—but for these good, brave men. Joachim, who became a lifelong friend, encouraged me to look him up in Berlin after the war. As a parting gift, he gave me his precious 7×50 Leitz binoculars.
Bueno, you can imagine my family’s shock when I returned home, looking like a crazy jungle man. I was ten pounds thinner, too, and swaying on sea legs but otherwise none the worse for wear. As I told them the story of my capture, they laughed as if it were the funniest joke they’d ever heard. But when they saw I was dead serious—and rattled off German phrases as proof—they were convinced that I’d somehow knocked myself on the head and lost my memory. What other explanation could there be? Oscarito, who hated ambiguity and aimed his words straight as arrows, put an arm around my shoulders. “I don’t give a damn what happened to you, hermano. I’m just glad to have you back.”
What could I say? Sometimes the truth is so outlandish that it’s better to let people believe you’re indulging in fantasy.
The next Saturday, my parents threw me a welcome-home party and invited the whole neighborhood. They pit-roasted a pig in banana leaves, cooked vats of black beans and rice, and baked enough flan to make our teeth ache. Tío Eufemio hired the best conjunto in town to play the changüís and guarachas that kept us dancing long into the night. When the party wound down, I walked toward the sugar mill, where my family had slaved for decades. In this world of sugarcane, time had stood still for over a century, one season following the next with barely a change. I thought of the U-boat batteries, how they’d saved us time and again, how they might save Baracoa.
I finally did visit Joachim. Not right after the war—that was impossible—but in 1957, after I made a fortune in industrial batteries. I’d studied engineering and designed batteries that kept everything in the sugar mills—from the crusher rollers to the centrifuges—operating without gasoline, or costly interruptions. I sold my patents to manufacturers in Brazil, the Philippines, even the U.S. It was because of those Germans that I became a self-made millionaire, Cuba’s king of batteries. Then the dichosa revolution happened and destroyed everything. I made a terrible mistake not leaving the island when I could.
Joachim married a Polish woman and had three daughters, one of them an albino. He looked more shrunken than he had on the submarine, probably due to the contrast in surroundings. Joachim taught Spanish—with a Cuban accent, imagínate tú—at a local high school and did so until his retirement. Now I’m here in Berlin for his funeral. Me? It took me forever to find a wife. I was almost fifty when I married a widow and adopted her six kids. I won over my Graciela with pink carnations. Cartloads of them. She didn’t believe the story of my kidnapping either, though she was tolerant enough and enjoyed my guttural impersonations of the crew. By then, I’d long stopped caring what people thought.
Let me tell you something else: I’m the exact same age as Fidel himself. We were born just two days and thirty miles apart in 1926. I hang on, praying he’ll go first. At home in Baracoa, I like to sit on my veranda at night, especially when the moon is full, and scan the horizon with my German binoculars. My wicker swing overlooks the sea, and sometimes I imagine that German submarine rising up out of the Caribbean, coming for me once more. But this time, amiga, I wouldn’t hesitate. I would willingly go.
CRISTINA GARCÍA is the author of seven novels, including: Dreaming in Cuban―a Finalist for the National Book Award whose 25th Anniversary edition is coming in March 2017―The Agüero Sisters, Monkey Hunting, A Handbook to Luck, The Lady Matador’s Hotel, and King of Cuba. García has edited two anthologies, Cubanísimo: The Vintage Book of Contemporary Cuban Literature and Bordering Fires: The Vintage Book of Contemporary Mexican and Chicano/a Literature. García’s work has been translated into fourteen languages. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University, and an NEA grant, among others. García has taught at universities nationwide. Recently, she completed her tenure as University Chair in Creative Writing at Texas State University-San Marcos and as Visiting Professor at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas-Austin. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.
Adapted from Here in Berlin, by Cristina García, Copyright © 2017 by Cristina García. With the permission of the publisher, Counterpoint.