"Here In Berlin" is celebrated author Cristina García's seventh novel, in which a Cuban American woman - called simply, "the Visitor" - walks the present-day streets of the European city, collecting World War II memories from the last surviving witnesses to Hitler's Third Reich.
At first, the connections between the Visitor's Cuban and Spanish cultural heritage and the history of Germany are not readily apparent. But through a few of the testimonies, the reader is reminded of the Caribbean island's Spanish colonial history until its brief independence after the Spanish-American War of 1898 and its lengthy communist rule under Castro, as well as Spain's dictatorship under the military dictator General Franco from 1939 to 1975.
In 1941, Franco sent 48,000 Spaniards to help the Nazis fight the Russians, who were allies at the time of the United States. The complex relationships on the global stage inform the more intimate interactions the Visitor has with immigrants, exiles and native Berliners in order to reach the emotional truths of history, memory and story.
From a woman who defended accused Nazis in court, the Visitor learns that "history can't be erased, but it is definitely subject to negotiation." From the woman who runs a cosplay Nazi sex club, the Visitor learns that "it doesn't matter what's true, Schatzi, if it's true to [the people who believe it]." From the captain of a German pleasure ship sunk during the war, she learns that "to remember too much unsettles one's stability, devouring the present and what little remains of the future."
One of the more compelling lessons of the novel comes from the character who doesn't remember at all because he suffers from amnesia. Free from the burdens of memory, he's able to speak with unabashed clarity about the community he inhabits.
"Their stories lie beneath the stories that nobody wants to talk about," he states. "They haunt the present like palimpsests, shaping it with their hungers. Sometimes it takes an outsider—and I've become one—to see what we refuse to acknowledge: the secrets buried by shame, effrontery, intimidation, revenge."
Eventually the reader understands that the Visitor loses herself in the cluster of stories by design. "The Visitor had listened to others' histories and was finally released from her own."
Very little of her personal story is revealed, however—a failed second marriage, a troubled childhood—though it's evident that she, like the people she encounters and Berlin itself, is haunted by, and is a hostage of, the past.
Unlike her previous novels like "Dreaming in Cuban" and "The Lady Matador's Hotel," which also weave multiple-character points of view, the characters of "Here in Berlin" do not make subsequent appearances in the novel. Each gives a singular testimony, and then the Visitor moves on to the next encounter.
When the stories are rich and intriguing - like the story of the Jewish woman who spent 37 days in a sarcophagus in order to evade the Nazis - readers will wish the succinct account had been expanded into a longer narrative. But the drive of the book is not in the development of individual stories but in the construction of a dazzling portrait, via Berlin, on the nature of remembering and its loss, trauma, and decay.
Though the novel's themes and innovative structure are directly influenced by the German novelist W. G. Sebald, García builds a stunning landscape that's unquestionably her trademark: a layered conversation that necessarily includes the Americas about how national identity, culture, and history are shaped by communal struggle and unsettled by political circumstance.
In the middle of her story gathering, the Visitor arrives at the key question, "Do people remember only what they can endure, or distort memories until they can endure them?" There is no easy answer.
Perhaps there are multiple experiences on the journey toward an understanding of the self, the places and people one aims to forget and what can never be forgotten.
"Here in Berlin" is García's most striking and profound novel to date, and an uneasy reminder, on a personal and a national scale, of the need to reconcile with the demons of yesterday before they become the tormentors of today.