Follow the Lutanist of Berlin

Synopsis ‘Berlin – City of Smoke’ is the collected first 8 issues of Jason Lutes’ Berlin series (1996- 2000). It is set in 1928-29, in Berlin, at a time when the currents of global politics were clashing – Communism, Nazism, conservatism. Against this backdrop we follow characters who are all trying to find their place in the City, but cannot define the world in monochrome like many others do.

Three categories of good books – deserve to be re-read, need to be re-read, deserve and need to be re-read. The last one is where “Berlin – City of Stones” belongs. It is a book with breathtaking expanse, delightful details, and a story that is excavated upon events of such significance that we would be naïve to feel we’ve understood it in one go. Or I would be, at least.

A return to this book made such joyous reading, tasting all that I had missed while gulping it down earlier. Jason Lutes, writer and illustrator, has told such a touching story, alighting on so many characters, all the while maintaining a narrative unity.

Am I gushing, or is it just that good?

It is very rare that I encounter a lengthy work of art and feel that nothing was overdone, nothing could have been cut, nothing could have be elaborated. It feels like the baby bear’s bed. Just right.

Lutes’ is the story of two protagonists – Marthe Muller and Kurt Severing. They are worlds apart, coming together by a chance encounter. Muller comes to Berlin to change the way she has been living – to learn and experience everything that life in a big city offers. Severing is an old hand here, and as a journalist he is an observer, not a doer, and records change instead of living it.

“But, are they the protagonists?” I ask myself. Are we more moved by them or by Gudrun, the communist mother? Or even by many of the lesser characters? Interestingly, Lutes has offered us many people with independent life-stories, instead of minor characters whose only role is to bolster the protagonist’s story. So, in as many ways there are as many protagonists in this comic book.

An epic story, such as this, is served by turning the smallest of people into the most important presence on the page/frame, at that time. “There is no greatness, where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth” said one who knew epic scale very well. This is why Lutes manages to make “Berlin” stay with the reader for long, and makes the reader stay long as well. We are not just reading about Muller and Severing, but are seeing the whole city speak, through its people, though its streets. It isn’t mere whimsy when suddenly we hear (or see) the thoughts of random walk-through characters such as a ticket-checker, or a traffic constable. We are being shown a glimpse of the gigantic buzz of the hive that is the modern metropolis. We are suddenly empowered with ears that hear thoughts.

Lutes himself indicates that the central nerve of the story is that of the city – Berlin. Berlin is changing and changes her people. Berlin is where people are coming for opportunity. Berlin is what is being chronicled. And Berlin is where people are fighting and dying on the streets. The million-window-eyed city is what is always heaving and breathing in almost every frame.

And Lutes is not being easy with his readers by providing a history lesson. He chooses to let the events unfold dramatically and with full fury, which to a sensitive reader is a signal to go and take a fresher course in relevant German history. We read that this is Weimar Germany, but are not told not what the Weimar Republic is. We see the Nationalist Socialists, but not their more famous avatar, and thus we are not allowed the more obvious familiarity. And most hauntingly we are introduced, posthumously, to Rosa Luxemburg, an alluring and mysterious character, who is a revolution’s figurehead, and also a lonely boy’s refuge. Luxemburg brings masses of hundreds into the streets, and inhabits the dreams of anonymous people, and yet we don’t know enough about her to be part of these masses. We are outsiders in this world, we are not cosy friends. This is not “Maus”.

One matter of consternation, however, is the way in which the faces of characters are quite indistinct from each other. It is disorienting when one cannot always distinguish between Marthe and Gudrun, or a policeman and a communist. One tries to grasp little nuances of the hair, or clothing, to anchor the characters, but to no great avail. So I found myself unable to be certain how someone’s story began or ended. Alas.

Some of the best moments of “Berlin” are not actually part of the currents of the story, but as asides. Here the characters, stories and faces stop mattering. Severing, as journalist-observer, holds up an interesting mirror to society:

“Berlin” is intended to be a trilogy, but only 2 have been released. When I re-read the second one I will discuss it here. As a parting shot I can say this about “Berlin” (meaning it complimentarily), that if ever the term “graphic novel” was to be used aptly, it would be for this book.

‘Berlin – The City of Stones’

Jason Lutes (writer-artist)

Published by Drawn & Quarterly, 2001

USD 22.95

3 thoughts on “Follow the Lutanist of Berlin

    1. Absolutely would.
      Here the term fits, given the expanse of the subject. A book needs to have certain characteristics to be called a novel – long-ish length and a sense of examination of events are two things that come to mind. “Berlin” has all this. In fact, it is like an epic novel since it weaves in the currents of history – like a “War and Peace” or a “Doctor Zhivago”.

  1. A most intriguing post, not a title I had ever come across but definitely one I want to now add to my ‘to read’ list.

    Thanks, I always enjoy your posts. Cheers…

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