Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, Gail Jones, Germany, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘A Guide to Berlin’ by Gail Jones

A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 272 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Gail Jones latest novel, A Guide to Berlin, pays homage to Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian writer who inspired the title*, as well as the city of Berlin itself.

The book focuses on a group of six Berlin-based Nabokov fans from around the world — two Italians, a Japanese couple, an American and an Australian — who meet regularly to tell a “densely remembered story or detail” about their lives, what they dub “speak-memory** disclosures”.

The narrative largely revolves around Cass, the 20-something Australian who has decamped from Sydney to Berlin in pursuit of a dream: to write and to be near the family home in which Nabokov once lived. Here she meets Marco, the Italian academic/real estate agent, who organises the Nabokov get-togethers in empty apartments he’s trying to sell. And from there she is introduced to the others in the group: Victor from New York, Gino from Rome, and Yukio and Mitsuki from Tokyo.

Short stories woven together

The book is loosely structured around each character’s speak-memory, giving it the feel of a short story collection. It’s not quite as rigid as Jones’ previous novel, Five Bells, which follows the lives of five different characters in clearly delineated sections, but more fluid in the sense that Cass’s new life exploring Berlin is woven throughout the narrative: her adventures are simply punctuated by the Nabovok meetings she attends.

This helps to provide the story with a real sense of atmosphere. Jones does a lot of work telling us about Berlin’s haunted past and how its streets, shrouded in winter snow, almost echo with the footsteps of people long since dead. Indeed, Berlin feels very much like a character in its own right, and it’s beautifully evoked through the eyes of an antipodean experiencing a Northern Hemisphere winter for the first time:

Before the snows truly began, the city was a desolating ash-grey, and bitterly cold. Cass had never seen such a grey city. It felt stiff and dead. There were the fleshless arms of cranes, slowly swinging, there was the rumble slide of ubiquitous trains and trams, there were busy buses, skidding pedestrians, instructive red and green lights blinking their cartoon man, but still Berlin seemed to her collectively frozen. The white sky was menacing. The plates of ice on the Spree, uneven and jagged, resembled a spray of shattered glass after a wartime bombing.

Stylistically superb

But I have to say I found A Guide to Berlin slightly disappointing. I can’t fault the prose, which is beautiful and elegiac and littered with Nabokov references that I’m sure fans will enjoy spotting. And there’s no doubting that Jones’ is a superb stylist, with every single word carefully selected to do a specific job, but that, on its own, isn’t enough to carry this relatively thin story, which occasionally feels fleshed out merely for the sake of it.

But I think my biggest gripe is this: it’s not a plot-driven novel, and yet, just as the reader begins to wonder how the story is going to end, the author relies on plot-driven devices to bring things to a head. The ending, as the blurb will tell you, is violent and shocking. But it also feels rushed — and far from authentic.

Yet, for all that, the story is an easy one to read, and I very much enjoyed spending time in Cass’s company and seeing Berlin through her eyes. I, too, have been a tourist a long way from home and I know of the torpor and melancholy that can arise when you’re suddenly confronted with horrendously oppressive weather day in day out and no support network to see you through.

This is a seemingly gentle and reflective story — about all kinds of things including truth, friendship, loyalty and travel — which slowly builds to a dramatic conclusion. I rather suspect if you’ve read Rachel Cusk’s Outline and liked it, you will like A Guide to Berlin too.

* A Guide to Berlin is a short story by Vladimir Nabokov, which was first published in 1925.
** Nabokov’s memoir, published in 1951, was called Speak, Memory.

This is my fourth book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my third for #AWW2016.

The author is widely published, so UK and US readers should have no trouble getting hold of this one.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Peter Schneider, Publisher, Setting

‘The Wall Jumper’ by Peter Schneider


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 139 pages; 2005. Translated from the German by Leigh Hafrey.

One of the seminal events in my life was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I was 20 years old at the time, but I can still remember watching the live coverage on TV from my living room in Australia with a mixture of joy, fascination and unbridled optimism for the future.

Peter Schneider’s classic German novel, The Wall Jumper, which was penned in 1982, provides a fascinating glimpse of Berlin life before the wall came down.

Life in a divided city

The book follows the lives of a handful of East Berliners who move to the West: Robert, who misses the rigid predictability of his previous life; Pommerer, who spends his time trying to outwit the system; Lena, a woman infected by suspicion and paranoia; and the unnamed narrator, who spends quite a lot of time crossing the border to visit family and friends.

The best time to cross the border at Heirich Heine Strasse is between twelve and two in the afternoon. The checkpoint is almost empty: just one other traveler, with a shepherd dog on a leash, waits under the loudspeaker for his number to be called. I could simply drive up to the shed from which a border official will soon emerge to hand me my numbered ticket. But I know the consequences of crossing the white line unasked: the officer, even if he is there and ready, will wave me back and make me wait until he gives me a sign. I can’t follow impulse: I have to wait for his beckoning hand, and I can’t afford to miss it. The message in this ritual is clear and seems deliberate: I am entering a state where even things that will happen anyway require authorisation.

Much of the book revolves around the narrator collecting stories of people “jumping the wall”, which are told anecdotal style in this plot-free narrative. Many of these anecdotes show the ingenious (and sometimes hilarious) lengths people will go to, the risks they will take, to outwit the system and cross the border — and the absurdity of having to risks their lives to jump through such hoops.

The author’s overall message seems to be that even with the wall removed, there would still be divisions between east and west, because it is difficult for people to ignore the way they are raised and the political values to which their society subscribes. Or, as the narrator puts it:

Pommerer and I can dissociate ourselves from our states as much as we like, but we can’t speak to each other without having our states speak for us. If I insist on majorities as instinctively as Pommerer distrusts them, it is because we have been equally receptive sons of the system that has brought us up.

Such ingrained attitudes become apparent when both of them witness a violent protest in the street one day: the narrator thinks the protest is purely an act of spontaneity; Pommerer believes it is a set-up by police designed to give them reason to prevent a real protest at a later date.

Heavy read

The Wall Jumper’s short length might suggest it’s a quick read, but it is actually quite heavy going, seeing as it explores many big issues — freedom, repression, the line between the state and the self, propaganda and politics, capitalism and communism, to name but a few — and does so in a dry, authoritative style, occasionally lightened by humour.  Indeed, I had to double-check this wasn’t a non-fiction book when I began it, because it feels like reportage or long-form journalism.

But as a slice of fictionalised history it does an important job of showing how people lived their lives in the shadow of the Cold War’s most tangible symbol.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Germany, John Murray, Louise Welsh, Publisher, Setting

‘The Girl on the Stairs’ by Louise Welsh


Fiction – hardcover; John Murray; 279 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It can’t be a coincidence that I’ve read two psychological thrillers set in Berlin this year — Melanie Joosten’s Berlin Syndrome and Louise Welsh’s The Girl on the Stairs.  The German city has such a rich and chequered history — the Wiemar Republic, Nazi Germany and then the split between East and West — that it is haunted by the ghosts of the past. Louse Welsh capitalises on this eerie atmosphere in this, her fifth and latest, novel.

Life in a strange new neighbourhood

The story revolves around a lesbian couple, Jane and Petra, who live in an old but renovated apartment in an ex-Jewish district of Berlin now populated by streetwalkers and well-to-do professionals. Petra, who is German, has a high-flying job in a bank and is the major breadwinner; Jane, a former bookseller, has just moved to Berlin from Scotland, and is seven months pregnant with their first child.

While Petra is busy at work, Jane is left to her own devices. When she is alone in the apartment, which faces onto a cemetery, she doesn’t feel comfortable and she often gets the sensation she’s being watched. At night she thinks she can see a flame burning in the abandoned building out the back.

There it was again, the faintest glimmer on the other side of the courtyard. Was it a light from somewhere in the building reflecting on a broken window in the derelict backhouse? It flickered again and disappeared. The windows in the backhouse were almost all free of glass. It shone again, faint and wavering; could it be the wind breezing through an unglazed window, causing a flame to tremble?

She can also hear her neighbours — Alban Mann, supposedly a respected doctor, and his 13-year-old daughter, Anna — arguing through the wall or in the stairwell. On one occasion she hears Herr Mann call his daughter a whore and on another she notices that Anna has a bruise on her face.

Jane then begins to wonder if Anna, who looks far older than her years and dresses like the streetwalkers that work in the neighbourhood, might be spending her evenings in the backhouse to escape an abusive father.

What would persuade a child to hide in an abandoned building amongst the pigeon droppings and scuttle of rats? What could be so bad that you would prefer the company of ghosts to home?

Jane’s suspicions about Herr Mann are heightened when she meets her downstairs neighbours, an elderly couple, Karl and Heike Becker, who tell her that Herr Mann’s wife went missing several years ago. According to Heike, Herr Mann murdered his wife and buried her under the floorboards, but Heike’s befuddled behaviour suggests she might have dementia — should Jane believe her or not?

Can you trust your neighbour?

The nub of the novel is this: is Alban Mann a murderer and child abuser, or is Jane simply letting her imagination run away with her?

All of Jane’s attempts to help Anna — by approaching her directly and by speaking with a local priest — are thwarted, but you are never quite sure whether she is being told to butt out because she’s a busybody or because she’s onto something. Her persistence — even when her front door is painted with an ugly slogan and the police arrive to warn her off — suggests the latter.

Welsh is very good at building a sense of eminent doom and a rising level of paranoia. In fact, the narrative is so menacing and claustrophobic, I wouldn’t want to read this book if I lived alone.

But by the same token, as with these kinds of psychological thrillers (of which I’ve read dozens and dozens in my time), there can only ever be one outcome: the protagonist has it all right, or she has it all wrong. And I’m afraid that in this case I guessed the over-the-top ending far too easily and felt some elements of the storyline towards the end slightly far-fetched.

But if you like fast-paced heart-hammering reads and don’t mind the odd implausibility in plot, then this is a good one to get the pulse racing. And it’s got enough spooky elements to make it a perfect Halloween-type read. But make sure you lock the doors, the windows — and the attic hatch — first.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Melanie Joosten, Publisher, Scribe, Setting

‘Berlin Syndrome’ by Melanie Joosten


Fiction – paperback; Scribe Publications; 256 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Melanie Joosten’s debut novel, Berlin Syndrome, is one of the best psychological thrillers I’ve read in quite a while. Think Emma Donahue’s Room crossed with John Fowles’ The Collector with a smidgen of the paranoia present in Nicci French’s work and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect.

Set in Berlin

The book is set in Berlin, Germany, and is divided into two parts.

The first reveals how Clare, an architectural photographer from Australia, meets Andi, an English teacher from Germany, in a foreign city far from home. There is an immediate, if somewhat mysterious, attraction between the pair, and before Clare realises it, her one-night stand has turned into something unexpectedly tender and romantic.

The second explores how their shared love story morphs into a bittersweet nightmare in which Andi keeps Clare captive against her will.

Stockholm syndrome

As the title might suggest, Clare develops a kind of Stockholm syndrome in which she can’t quite find it within herself to hate Andi.

Her days and nights feel more real than any have before. Here, in Andi’s apartment, she is living a distillation of her former life. She is, for the first time, living in the present because there is nowhere else to be. Her past and future are far from her reach; she is free from their obligations.

This closely observed psychological drama is a real page turner. It’s creepy and sexy and thought-provoking, too. How did this romance turn into such a dangerous symbiotic relationship? Is Clare really as naive and good-natured as she seems? Will Andi see the error of his ways and let his lover go? Will Clare ever manage to escape?

Of course, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Drip feed of information

What I particularly liked about Berlin Syndrome is the way in which Joosten offers a drip feed of information that reveals new aspects to each character. I found myself constantly reassessing my views of both Andi and Clare the deeper I got into the story. There were times when I wasn’t sure who was the more pathetic of the two, and my sympathy — and allegiances — switched from character to character depending on what I discovered about them.

I also appreciated the pacing of the story. While it’s told in the third person, Joosten expertly flips between presenting Clare’s side of the story with Andi’s and she does it in such a seamless way that you barely notice the joins. This allows you to see Clare and Andi’s complicated relationship from both perspectives without any loss of momentum — or suspense.

And finally, the choice of Berlin setting is a good one, particularly as the city holds very many secrets of its own.

Berlin Syndrome is a fast-paced, eerie read. It’s part horror story, part sexy romance, but ultimately it’s a mesmirising tale above love, obsession, trust, secrecy and truth.

Author, Book review, Esi Edugyan, Fiction, France, Germany, holocaust, literary fiction, Publisher, Serpent's Tail, Setting

‘Half Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan


Fiction – Kindle edition; Serpent’s Tail; 256 pages; 2011.

A book about jazz musicians living in Berlin during the Second World War isn’t something that would normally pique my interest. But this book has been nominated for every award going this year — the Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize — so I figured there must be something special about it. I was right.

The first thing that strikes you about this novel is the voice of its narrator, Sidney Griffiths, a black bass player from Baltimore who spent his formative years in Berlin during the 1930s and 40s. To give you a feel for how he talks, here’s how he describes the jazz band to which he once belonged:

Once upon a time we was the stuff. Played the greatest clubs of Europe, our five recordings as famous as anything. We had fans across the continent, played Austria and Switzerland and Sweden and Hungary and even Poland. Only reason we ain’t never gigged in France was cause Ernst, a proud son of a bitch, he held a war-based grudge. Lost it soon enough, when old Germany started falling apart. But before that our band was downright gold, all six of us: Hieronymus Falk on trumpet; Ernst ‘the Mouth’ von Haselberg on clarinet; Big Fritz Bayer on alto sax; Paul Butterstein on piano; and, finally, us, the rhythm boys – Chip Jones on drums and yours truly thumbing the upright. We was a kind of family, as messed-up and dysfunctional as any you could want.

When the story opens Sid is an old man. It’s 1992 and his fellow band member, Chip, is accompanying him to the German premiere of a film about Hieronymus Falk. Hiero, the youngest member of their band, was largely regarded as a musical protégé, but he died in Mauthausen Concentration Camp. The documentary explores events leading up to his arrest by the Nazis. It also accuses Sid of a great betrayal, something which takes him somewhat by surprise.

But all is not as it seems. Like the legend of Elvis, there are rumours that Hiero is still alive.

‘What really happened to Hieronymus Falk’ become something of a journalist sport. All sorts of nonsense started up.

When Chip reveals that he’s received recent correspondence from Hiero, he and Sid go on a heart-wrenching adventure to find him. During their trip — by bus through a rather grim pre-European Union Poland — Sid slowly comes to accept that his past has finally caught up with him but is struggling to know how to deal with it.

The narrative swings back and forth across time — from Berlin and Paris during the war, and Berlin and Poland 50 years later — but events are always seen from Sid’s point of view. It’s a fascinating account of one man’s experiences — his love affairs, his musical rivalries and fierce jealousies (especially of Hiero), his guilt and much-too-late atonement for one cruel act that he can never take back.

These temporal shifts allow us to see the ways in which Sid has grown and changed as a character. The young Sid is plagued by self-doubt and envy; the older Sid is comfortable in his skin until his conscience and regret get the better of him.

While the book is littered with jazz references, I tended not to view this as a “jazz novel” — I’m not knowledgeable enough to cast comment on its authenticity or otherwise — but I did enjoy the way Edugyan brings the music to life through her prose.

Hiero thrown out note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding all over the surface of a lake, and [Louis] Armstrong was the water, all depth and thought, not one wasted note. Hiero, he just reaching out, seeking the shore; Armstrong stood there calling across to him. Their horns sound so naked, so blunt, you felt almost guilty listening to it, like you eavesdropping. After some minutes Chip stopped singing, left just the two golden ropes of sound to intertwine.

But for me, the heart of this novel is the way in which Edugyan shines a spotlight on a subject not much explored in modern fiction — that of black people living in Aryan Germany. Here’s how one character explains it:

‘Life for black people under the Third Reich,’ he said through his nose, ‘was extremely contradictory. This is because there were so many different types of black people, and their treatment depended on what group they belonged to. For instance, you had the children of the African diplomats who’d come to the country during its colonial period. You had African–American performers, the opera singer Marian Anderson and jazzmen like Charles Jones and Sidney Griffiths, who, like their counterparts in Paris – Josephine Baker, Arthur Briggs, Bill Coleman and the like – all came to Europe to get away from the overwhelming racism prevalent in the southern United States in that era. The Jim Crow laws, in effect from the late 1800s right into the 1950s, barred blacks from active participation in society. In the twenties Europe was still a place black entertainers could come to earn a good living. Especially in Germany, whose borders were kept open to foreigners due to the Versailles Treaty. Also, the loss of the First World War had brought about a whole new artistic movement. The market for jazz had grown tremendously, and there was a decent following.’

While Half Blood Blues is not a perfect novel, I can’t help but respect Edugyan’s accomplishment. She’s attempted a risky endeavour by giving herself some high aims. Not only does she write the entire book in a Creolized voice, she focuses on jazz musicians against the backdrop of the Third Reich. She then fleshes out a very strong cast of characters, throws in a page-turning plot — Is Hiero alive or not? Did Sid really betray him? — and uses a complex structure to tell her story.

Half Blood Blues has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize — and I’d like to think she might just win it. For other takes on this novel please see KevinfromCanada’s review and The Mookse and the Gripes’ review.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Germany, Hans Fallada, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 608 pages; 2010. Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann.

Hans Fallada, the pen name of Rudolph Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen (1893-1947), reportedly wrote Alone in Berlin in just 24 days. And it shows.

This is a big, rambling book, with a loose narrative structure, and a cast of what seems like a million characters. It’s set in Berlin during the Second World War and focuses on one man’s efforts to resist the Nazis in the best way he knows how: by dropping postcards with anti-Hitler messages scrawled upon them in public buildings across the city. If he is caught, there is no doubt that Otto Quangel, an ordinary German, will be executed by the regime.

This sounds like a terrific premise for a book — and it is. I can honestly say that the first 200 or so pages are genuinely gripping, as Fallada introduces us to the characters, provides accounts of their troubled and occasionally trivial lives under the Third Reich, and shows how Otto, once a supporter of the Nazi regime, changes his mind when his only son is killed in the war. When together with his wife, Anna, he begins dropping anti-fascist postcards as an act of quiet rebellion you can’t help but admire him for it.

But the momentum of this novel, which is divided into four chunks, is lost in the big baggy structure of it. There are countless characters, many of whom simply drop out of the storyline without explanation. Often the Quango’s tale of resistance becomes subsidiary to other tangential threads, some of which are interesting stories in themselves — for instance, Hetty Haberles decision to shelter the weasel Enno Kluge from the Gestapo on the basis that they prosecuted her husband — but end up turning what should be the main narrative into mere background noise.

However, the book does throw up some important issues about politics, morality, truth, justice and humanity, which seem particularly prescient given the book was written in 1947 without the benefit of looking at the Nazi regime through decades of moral reflection and historical analysis. If there is any message to be taken from the story it is this, best summed up by one of the characters, Dr Reichhardt, who reassures Otto that his efforts of resistance were not useless:

“Well, it will have helped us to feel that we behaved decently till the end. […] Of course, Quangel, it would have been a hundred times better if we’d had someone who could have told us, such and such is what you have to do; our plan is this and this. But if there had been such a man in Germany, then Hitler would never have come to power in 1933. As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean that we ARE alone, or that our deaths will be in vain. Nothing in this world is done in vain, and since we are fighting for justice against brutality, we are bound to prevail in the end.”

As much as I wanted to love this book, particularly it’s moral message (I read it very soon after A Woman in Berlin), I couldn’t overlook its woolly structure and its meandering narrative. Apparently the story is based on a real life case in which a poorly educated working-class couple conducted a three-year propaganda campaign during the Nazi regime. This is documented at the rear of the novel and, in many ways, was more interesting to read than Fallada’s fictionalised account.

Sadly, Fallada, who spent much of his adult life in an out of psychiatric care, did not live to see the publication of this book. It was translated into English for the first time in 2009, where it was published in the USA as Every Man Dies Alone.

Anonymous, Author, Book review, Germany, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Virago

‘A Woman In Berlin’ by Anonymous


Non-fiction – paperback; Virago; 311 pages; 2005.

It’s true: the war is rolling towards Berlin. What was yesterday a distant rumble has now become a constant roar. We breathe the din; our ears are deafened to all but the heaviest guns. We’ve long given up trying to figure out where they are positioned. We are ringed in by barrels, and the circle is growing smaller by the hour.

So begins one of the most harrowing accounts of war-time Berlin you are ever likely to encounter. Indeed, the imminent war historian Antony Beevor, who writes the introduction to this edition, calls it “a war diary unlike any other…one of the most important personal accounts ever written”.

The diary begins on Friday 20 April 1945 and continues for just over two months until 22 June. It is written by an anonymous 34-year-old woman, whose husband is away fighting in the German Army. She has been bombed out of her own apartment and is now living in a furnished attic room owned by a former colleague, who has also been called up.

It chronicles the day-to-day struggle for survival in a city now under Russian occupation. We hear of the huge queues for food and water, the ransacking of government buildings in search of Nazi stockpiles, the constant fear that they will be bombed out of their homes. But the most shocking part of this book is the diarist’s account of mass rape that was carried out by Russian soldiers.

Fortunately, she doesn’t go into elaborate detail, but her thumbnail portraits of such barbarous events — she was raped several times over the course of a few days — are enough to fill the reader with horror. But this is an intelligent, well-educated woman, who, as a journalist had travelled the world and picked up numerous foreign languages along the way (including Russian), and so she adopts the most pragmatic approach that one could adopt when confronted with such brutality — on Tuesday, 1 May 1945, she writes:

No question about it: I have to find a single wolf to keep away the pack. An officer, as high-ranking as possible, a commandant, a general, whatever I can manage. After all, what are my brains for, my little knowledge of the enemy language?

While A Woman in Berlin might sound like terribly depressing subject matter, it somehow doesn’t feel that way when you read it. Yes, it’s distressing and occasionally very dark, but the diarist is so practical, so free from self-pity and so bloody tenacious, that you find yourself being swept up by her life, cheering her along, hoping she’ll come out the other side with her spirit and faculties intact. It helps, too, that the book is riddled with dark humour, such as this exchange between a friend she manages to track down on 21 May:

Ilse and I hastily exchange the first sentences: ‘How many times were you raped, Ilse?’ ‘Four, and you?’ ‘No idea, I had to work my way up the ranks, from supply train to major.’

I also have to point out how terribly easy this book is to read. It feels very much like a novel, not a diary. She has such an eye for detail that she brings everything to life in beautiful descriptive passages, such as this one contained in her entry for 10 May:

All along the way we see debris left by the troops: gutted cars, burned-out tanks, battered gun-carriages. Occasional posters in Russian celebrating May Day, Stalin, the victory. Here, too, there are scarcely any people. Now and then some pitiful creature darts by — a man in shirt sleeves, a woman with dishevelled hair. No one pays us much attention. A woman passes us, barefoot and bedraggled. She answers our questions — ‘Yes, the bridge is still there’ — and hurries away. Barefoot? In Berlin? I’ve never seen a woman in that condition before. The bridge is still blocked by a barricade of rubble; my heart is pounding as we slip through a gap.

And this, more startling, image contained in her entry dated Thursday, 26 April:

An image from the street: a man pushing a wheelbarrow with a dead woman on top, stiff as a board. Loose grey strands of hair fluttering, a blue kitchen apron. Her withered legs in grey stockings sticking out the end of the wheelbarrow. Hardly anyone gave her a second glance. Just like when they used to ignore the rubbish being hauled away.

The publishing history and the “outing” of the anonymous author’s identity is almost as interesting as the book itself. A Woman in Berlin was first published in an English translation in the US in 1954 and the UK in 1955. When a German language edition was published in 1960 it caused an uproar, because as Antony Beevor explains, “rape and sexual collaboration for survival were taboo subjects”.  The author apparently claimed she did not want it published again in her lifetime. She died in 2001 and it was republished in 2003. You can find out more about her in this wikipedia entry.