“Berlin” by Aleš Šteger [Why This Book Should Win]
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by P.T. Smith, BTBA judge, writer, and reader. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Berlin by Aleš Šteger, translated from the Slovene by Brian Henry, Forrest Gander, and Aljaž Kovac (Slovenia, Counterpath)
This year’s BTBA long list can, like others in years past, be praised for its diversity, and I’m sure that for most, that calls to mind gender, cultural background, language, etc, but for me, just as interesting a form of diversity on an award list is in style, length, tone, etc. We have long novels, we have short novels, we have a linked story collection, and a collection from across multiple works, across a lifetime. There are novels on a grand scale, and with the microscopic, funny books and wholly serious ones, realist and reality unsettled. Aleś Šteger’s Berlin (published by Counterpath) should win because it’s a masterpiece of the shortest short stories, so much so that I wholly rediscovered my forgotten love for the form.
Long before flash fiction, Yasunari Kawabata wrote what he called palm-of-the-hand stories, and though there is much more event in his stories and Šteger’s are personal and observational, they are of the same tradition. Brevity dominates, ephemeral beauty captured ever so briefly, and emotions turn on a single line, shift completely with a thought or a glimpse. The shifting, unsettled nature of his tales makes them well suited to being worked on by three different translators, Brian Henry, Aljaž Kovač, and Forrest Gander. The two to three page stories are ideas distilled to their essence, complete offerings that left me satisfied in a way so many novels fail to do it. There is nothing lesser in literature so brief, so seemingly consumable, and each scene should be sat with, pages turned slowly. That’s not to say, though, that I couldn’t keep myself from reading many in a sitting.
Berlin should win because it is not about a city or place in the sense that it uses history, fact, the verisimilitude of the physical, but instead it is about the experience of place, and that is a more significant, and difficult to achieve, accomplishment. Though clearly inspired by Šteger’s time in Berlin, in the type of moments it portrays, in the emotions of them, it’s about the particular way that a place is experienced by a visitor, whether there for a week or for months. The specific place at hand is Berlin, but it could be any place, so long as the passing through is deeply felt.
So Berlin should win because it not only reminded me how much I love the truly short form, but also why I have loved travel. The moments where you see a city in a detail and feel it personally, feel a connection to that place that is private, and in its total insignificance is infinitely more memorable, more sentimental, than experiences you sought, had expectations of. If I’m being honest, what I mean is that Berlin should win because Šteger does what I wish I could do with any of my travels to foreign cities: make them interesting, beautiful, worth sharing, instead of obsessive navel-gazing by someone who thinks travel makes them interesting and beautiful, who sounds like they think their gaze is so privileged that they discovered something essential to that city that no one before them ever did.
So yes, I think Berlin should win because if I’m to be this jealous of a book, it better damn well impress everyone else, be so accomplished that my jealousy is of something far beyond me. Mundane moments become loaded just by being detached from familiarity. In “Flea Markets,” Šteger visits exactly that, and sees it the way traveler does, inspired by what others, in their routine instead of out of it, don’t. It creates desire, “The objects develop photographic negatives in the memories of those who would resist the urge to buy them.” It haunts his day, this unnamed object, “around which I’d spun my own thick skein of longing,” so much so that he returns to it, his desire easily read by its seller, vulnerable in the face of it. That vulnerability only makes his satisfaction greater when he is the owner of a chair, proudly sitting in it, on the subway, others happy to witness this level of contentment in the traveler.
“The museum of museum guards” captures the poetic idleness travelers can be granted. Visits to museums are sometimes not about the art, but about passing the time, about seeing what events or ideas somehow come along with the trip. Here, the guards become the focus, the work of art, the movements of this breed of human, this job: “The museum, in which the exhibits protect themselves, will end with a room with a display of a guard’s fart, an act inspired by classical art, a gesture of pure, organic creative expression, without restraint and without apology.”
Berlin is a book of pleasures. The melancholic, the funny, the weight of history, the heights of art, the minor interactions of street life, the changes in weather that change us, insights triggered by glimpses of another’s life or of a building, all these minor pleasures are offered. There is sadness in all of it, as pleasures so brief always are, but Šteger pins them down in writing, to be revisited, to be paired with our own versions of the same.
If you need to read only one story in this collection to believe it is a worthy BTBA winner, I’d ask you for a favored memory, one that rests in a deep place in your heart, from time in a distant city. For me, in a rather embarrassing cliché, it’d be bookstores, whether they sell books in a language I could read or not. In his own cliché, Šteger’s visit to a bookshop is an act of worship, “About temples.” It’s utterly, almost absurdly, romantic, but he makes it felt, beautiful and intimate, bringing it back from that point of eye-rolling, so skillfully that I know I will reread it both in preparation for, and returning from, travel, as I will many other pieces in this collection. Šteger has been “ordained in books, which uncover the secret correspondences between Berlin and its gods,” and it does not mater if I have ever uncovered secret correspondences, it does not matter if I think of Berlin or Kyoto or Dublin or Reykjavik, what matters is that some part of me, for once, feels something true in the expression, and that ability is why Šteger and his translators should win this year.