Saturday, February 18, 2017

Zoo Station, An East West Mess

Zoo Station is a well-known train station in Berlin. It was known as a place to find prostitutes and heroin in the 1970s and 80s and was glamorized in books and film such as Christiane F. So when you title a book Zoo Station you might expect that this train station would figure prominently in the book but in the case of Zoo Station: Adventures in East And West Berlin by Ian Walker you find that this train station is mentioned one time in brief passing. When this book was published in 1987 I can only surmise that the title was chosen to cash in on the notoriety of the name Zoo Station.

What follows in the book written by a journalist in Berlin is an account of his time in the city in 1984. The stories aren't so much adventures but more tales of smuggling a poetry book into East Berlin (so devious and wild this author was), rants against the United States, character sketches of people he encounters, and anecdotes about life in both West and East Berlin.

There are many problems with this book and I am not certain if it is entirely nonfiction.

As the book slowly moves along I began to question whether this was nonfiction or fiction or a blending of the two. I suspect that there's more fiction here than truth in this tangled mess. I also began to question the sanity of the author. By the time I reached the middle of the book I felt as though I was reading the ramblings of someone suffering a mental illness. Walker did indeed have problems which he likes to remind you several times and only three years after this book was published he committed suicide in 1990. He jumped from the window of a building in London while shouting that Jesus was coming. A tragic end for sure but in reading this book you could see that he needed help.

About halfway through the book you begin realize that this isn't much a book but more the rambling journal of a mentally ill man. Some of the stories have a certain lack of authenticity about them. I suspect some of the stories are fictitious and either didn't happen as described or never happened at all.

The author repeatedly mentions that he is in financial trouble and keeps referring to unpaid debts back home in London. He mentions them so often you begin to think that he has skipped out and left the country to avoid paying these debts which must have been rather large.

The way he wrote about his love for his much younger girlfriend  Laura was creepy, obsessive and paranoid. He would go on and on about how beautiful she was and how when they would go anywhere together all the men would be staring at her beauty. He would imagine all these men wanting to sleep with her like he did and then he'd go on some insecure and paranoid rant about it. He didn't even like taking her out in public because he was so jealous and paranoid. This was a man in his early 30s but the way he would write about her made it seem like he was a love struck teenager. It was creepy.

Throughout the book Walker is always describing himself as a journalist and he likes to use this title to impress the people he meets in the book. But near the end of the book you find out that isn't even in Berlin on assignment and is there on unpaid leave from the Observer. He claims the unpaid leave was so he could write a book but, cough..cough..I call bullshit. He showed up at a military public relations tour so late, disheveled, hungover and acted so unprofessional that a member of the British military decided to check out his credentials with the Observer because he was suspicious of him. This is when we find out about the unpaid leave and that the Observer didn't even know what he was doing in Berlin and stated that he wasn't on any assignment for them.

To further make me suspect the author's credibility I never believed the authenticity of the character he calls Wolfgang without a last name. He seemed desperate to paint this Wolfgang character as a spy for the Stasi. I wonder if Wolfgang ever existed or was the creation of his imagination. He might of met a person once that people joked was a spy and so he expounded on the idea and developed a character but I really suspect this wasn't a true story. It was if he thought if he could create a story about knowing a Cold War spy he could make the book and himself more interesting. Some of the characters have last names but this Wolfgang's last name was never given which leads me to believe he was fiction. As often as he writes about this Wolfgang and as much as he wants this character to be important you would have thought he could have provided a last name for him. His conversations with this character were often long and detailed like a novel. Knowing that the author was only jotting down notes and not using a recorder I don't believe his memory was good enough to recall such great detail as body language and entire conversations by memory.

Even more curious about Walker's memory he somehow manages to have the exact same conversation with different people in different situations about the arms race and the 'war economy' between the east and west in the Cold War. He isn't the one both times saying these things. He puts the words into the mouths of the supposedly real characters. It happens early in the book at an East Berlin party and then magically near the very end of the book different characters at the British Officer's Club say the near exact same thing. It isn't even plausible that this would happen that these very different people would say the same words in two very different settings.

Then there's the issue of the timeline for this book.

The timeline is very blurry and the author never fully explains just how long he was in Berlin. I suspect he wasn't there for a long time. It seems that he once visited Berlin in 1979, came back to do an assignment in East Berlin with his girlfriend for the Observer and then came back to West Berlin in 1984. Most of the book seems to occur in 1984 which was probably the only time he lived there and that may have only been just a few months. We know at the end of the book he leaves West Berlin but we don't know when that takes place but it seems to be all in the same year. So it is difficult to understand just how well the author even knew Berlin.

At some point after Berlin he runs off to Nicaragua to meet up with a former roommate who was there saving the world. Was the author there just to avoid those debts? Was he there because his young girlfriend that he was obsessed with had left him?

The only thing certain about his stay in Nicaragua was that it was brief too because the book is published in 1987. His time in Nicaragua is also when he writes this book which he mentions was all done from his notes.

Credibility aside the book is tediously boring by the second half. Two unnecessary chapters are more filler in which Walker spends time touring the military installations of the U.S. and British armed forces stationed in West Berlin. Mostly these chapters are recitations of useless facts about the military which no one would find interesting and my eyes glossed over. He offered no context or insight to these numbers and it seemed like these chapters which weren't for the newspaper were just half-assed attempts at research.

Then the final blow of mediocrity is the chapter that Walker doesn't even write himself called Here's Johnny. The chapter is written by one of the friends of Walker that he mentions throughout the book. This Johnny is in no way interesting and is no one important and he never says anything important. Even he begins the chapter by saying, "I am trying to imagine what a western audience would see as the highlights of my life." This Johnny has no last name just like the Wolfgang character and I seriously think he was pure fiction too.

The positives about the book are the descriptions of the city, the people, the contrasts between East and West Berlin, his stories about border crossing procedures, his observations about immigrants in West Berlin and his descriptions of the people and places in the neighborhood of Kreuzberg.

At one point he is riding a bike along the wall in West Berlin and comes to an abandoned Catholic hospital adjacent to the wall. The hospital since becoming vacant had become home to squatters from various nations. The people being squatters were living in precarious conditions and some even had children. Their lives and stories would have made for interesting reading and I kept thinking there's a story worth telling but instead he only mentions it in passing and decides to go climb an observation tower yet again and smoke. What kind of journalist or writer passes up opportunities like this?

Eventually these same descriptions of the train system, meeting the same characters and hanging out in Metropol and Djungel wears thin. For a book to have the word 'adventures' in the title I want some fantastic stories to back up that claim. There never was any adventure. This guy was basically an average guy doing much of nothing in a uniquely interesting city during a period that was once in a lifetime but he was only a hanger on.There's not much of a story here and there is no greater understanding of people, politics or anything really. The book could have been about his own personal journey and struggles or it could have been about life in Berlin but it wasn't a success at either.