Berliners: A Novel by Vesper Stamper

Berliners: A Novel by Vesper Stamper

In 2019, before the madness of the Covid-19 pandemic, I got the chance to visit Berlin for a conference. I wasn’t there for long, but it was magical. I got to walk the bridges, stand under the Brandenburg gate, see some castles, and eat currywurst (all kinds of wursts!)

So when I saw this novel, I was immediately intrigued. The contents did not disappoint. But, first, a caveat: This is a Young Adult novel. The primary characters around which the story revolves, the brothers, Rudi and Peter, are in their early-mid teens and the story does not progress far into their adulthood. The prose, language, structure and so on are clearly written for a YA reader, but the historical and emotional content is potent and will suit a more mature reader.

The story is told from the two brothers’ perspectives; it is the tale of their parents and their lives after WWII has ended and German society — Berlin society — has settled into a kind of uncomfortable holding pattern, caught between the two ideologies and cultures of the American West and the Russian-controlled East. Vesper focuses on the interior perplexity in the boys’ minds: in a period of their lives when they are already grappling with puberty and teenage crises of identity, they are forced to also wrangle with the localized manifestations of external pressures of international politics, Cold War propaganda, and collective post-WWII German angst. They struggle with what anti-semitism means in this age, what Nazism had been and is now (Vesper makes this point clear: the end of the Second World War was now the end of Nazism or the hate that that regime promulgated. It lives on and remains as insidious as was), what socialism is and truly is, what the Russian and American regimes represent.

One brother awakens to an understanding that the Russians are selling them a false promise. The other brother believes the Americans are doing the same. One brother seeks the freedom of the West, the other seeks the stability and order of the East.

In the mean time, they are struggling against one another as well; competing as siblings for the attentions of their parents, for a kind of childish glory, for a sense of belonging within their own world.

They wrangle with the more mundane things of teenage life as well: understanding love in all its conflicting forms. Their parents are products of the war as much as they are; their relationship is fraught with tension, not unlike the kind of tension between the East and West: irreconcilable, ideological, built on a history that was not of their own making and borne out of the War. The brothers are also young men, their minds and bodies are tangled in novel feelings of love and sexuality. They are on the edge of adulthood and are testing out how they might victorious in this new domain; they experience losses, betrayals, and grief as the story unfolds — and failure, that first, very painful sting of rejection that is inevitably accompanied by new experience.

The novel follows Rudi and Peter as they navigate their parents’ and the city’s divergence. They eventually find themselves on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall, erected one night in secret.

This is a powerful YA novel that is also fulfilling for an older, more experienced reader. The moral and ethical dilemmas embedded in the politics and social interactions in this novel are ones that might be introduced to us at the YW stage of life, but they remain tangled in later adulthood too, so much of the conflict will be recognizable and moving for a maturer reader.

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