By definition, the bildungsroman is a literary genre about forward progress. From Stendhal’s Julien Sorel to Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, readers have for centuries watched the fictional stand-ins of famous writers forge exuberantly ahead, churning themselves forward after a few requisite glances at the past.
Of course, well-trodden turf elicits variation, and the form has also produced contemplative heroes capable of mining histories both public and personal. With an opening sentence that alludes to the nameless serial reconsiderer at the center of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland positions itself in this latter category. The novel’s protagonist, Jed Goodfinch, is simultaneously enthralled with and horrified by the ease with which the past can erase us, a perception that suddenly makes the genre more about paralysis than motion.
The story begins in medias res, with a recently sober Jed already encamped in mid-’80s West Berlin, a “disfigured city” affording the promise “of orgies and joy.” Though Jed reveals himself as a gay black American eager to cruise German boys atoning for the Fatherland, his narrative focus immediately shifts to Berlin itself, as if a city were something to hide behind.
Despite this oblique perspective, the reader eventually discovers that Jed is 28 and in possession of faint yet mortifying memories of an earlier wine-fueled tour of the city. When he moves in with his cousin Cello, a gifted and competitive classical pianist married to a wealthy German socialite, we realize that his unstated quest is to shake his status as the screw-up son of a family of Chicago-based “Negro Achievers.”
A committed reader, Jed is bright enough to comprehend that “the past sat on the shoulder of everything you saw in Berlin.” Accordingly, he arrives in town hoping to find Christopher Isherwood’s Weimar years perfectly intact, slouched upon an adjacent bar stool. “Berlin meant boys, Isherwood said,” Jed asserts early on, a selective reading that colors the entire book. For both men Berlin means melancholy, fracture, and loneliness more than it means “boys.” It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that Jed spends more time in bed with hash joints than men, expending most of his efforts on a hunky German named Manfred who just wants to stay friends.
Mutilated by war and perfunctorily divided, West Berlin emerges as a disjointed graveyard as much as a bohemian paradise. The novel’s true protagonist, the city’s own discordance, proves a nice stand-in for the narrator’s, who admits, “I didn’t try to stop myself from liking the dereliction,” as he passes bullet-riddled buildings. To Jed, and many of Black Deutschland’s other characters, the Wall’s symbolic separation of the Reichstag and the nearby Brandenburg Gate reads as a green light to see Berlin’s bombed-out streets as full of potential instead of haunting memories.
Wielding his liberal values like weaponry, Jed’s boss, the charismatic starchitect N.I. Rosen-Montag, leads this effort, pawning over-inflated opinions as facts and stocking his entourage with beautiful women and token “exotics” like Jed. A self-proclaimed “champion of reconstruction and the renovation of what exists,” his ideas are far more insular than he’d like to admit, his latest project being a cluster of otherworldly huts erected in a long-vacant swath of the city. From above they appear as “a Band-Aid on the raised knee of a napping Berlin.” Though Rosen-Montag acknowledges the futility of structures that merely bandage the past with their spineless modernity, he’s unable to admit that his work does the same thing, only with slightly more polish.
Over time, the novel begins to splinter as well, with Jed’s memories of another divided city bubbling to the surface as if against his will. Amidst the desolate context of late ’60s Black Belt Chicago, Jed’s parents practice a similar form of leftist selectivity as Rosen-Montag, though they oppose “urban renewal” efforts like the razing of tenements for a necklace of glittering I. M. Pei buildings. Living in integrated Hyde Park, “where white and black united to keep out the poor,” Jed’s mother comforts herself by tending to former addicts at the expense of her children, while his father desperately tries to save the once successful black newspaper founded by his own uncle.
For Jed, fractured cities mimic his fractured family. We see that, on a daily basis, his paranoid parents, or his schizophrenic uncle, or his senile grandfather, have reminded him of the pitfalls of black perseverance in a white world, causing him to draw deeper within himself, resorting first to alcohol, and later to the imagination.
Somewhere along the way, as the story pans back and forth between these two broken cities, with Jed’s fragile “Berlin dream floating on the river,” we grasp the quiet bravery of his tale. Black Deutschland is the story of a former addict, after all. A gay, black ex-addict during the height of the AIDs crisis, landlocked in a bisected city completely engulfed by the Eastern Bloc, no less.
Though he flirts with anonymity, threatening to hide away like his most obvious antecedents, Ellison’s aforementioned Invisible Man and Dostoevsky’s underground lunatic, Jed remains a hyper-alert observer of others, a skeptical-yet-dazzling Dadaist chronicler of the human spectacle. How can a black man feel whole in America? Or in a Europe that refuses to see itself as anything but lily-white, despite its avant-garde pretensions? We may never know, but with Pinckney’s novel as evidence, we see that meaningful art can be made from dramatizing the ceaseless fragmentation of history.