Breaking Down Berlin Noir

Ever since watching one of my fave movies of all time, Cabaret,
and reading all things Sally Bowles in Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, I have been fascinated with the anything goes attitude of Berlin in the 1920’s and 1930’s under the Weimar Republic. The grittiness, underground but ubiquitous clubs that catered to the so-called ‘sexual deviants’ and the adventurous folks in search of innuendo, nuance and the promise of something, anything, out of the ordinary. Enter Aris Fioretos, author of The Truth About Sascha Knisch. Set in 1928 Berlin, this book is a noirish murder thriller involving a cross dresser, a “minette”(a woman of the ev-e-ning) and assorted other characters involved in ‘sexological’ research. Sascha Knish is the cross dressing protagonist who visits Dora, our minette, to satisfy his fantasy of dressing up in ladies’ silks and linens while he makes it with a masculine looking prostitute. Their relationship progresses into a detached love affair of sorts, but can only go so far because Sascha doesn’t reveal until it’s too late to Dora that his name is not really ‘Anton’.

In the opening chapter, Sascha gets trapped in Dora’s closet in a compromising position and begins to wonder what has happened to Dora when she never returns:

But time passed and nothing happened. Gradually, silence descended on the flat. One might have almost have thought somebody had passed away. Should I leave the closet and check? Or did I merely imagine things? I almost burst out laughing when I realised the simple truth: Dora had tiptoed back, shoes in hand, to see how long I’d last before I broke my promise! I clenched my fists and shut my eyes, and in this way I managed to remain steadfast for another few minutes. But then I couldn’t make it any longer. Although the pricking agony was delicious, it suddenly felt as if my bladder was about to burst. The alarm clock on the bedside table showed 6.25 when I threw open the doors and emerged from my involuntary paradise – with the yellow blouse straining across a brassiere stuffed stiff with napkins, my hair in plaits, and my hands carefully on my hips, tottering bravely on high heels, with a red satin bow tied around my mad sex.
After that, nothing was the same again.

This is no joke. Dora is dead and Sascha becomes the number one murder suspect. What I love about this book is the atmosphere that Fioretos creates, the details of Sascha’s Berlin as he rides through on his Torpedo bike, the feelings Sascha has to dress up in women’s clothes and underbelly of Berlin where the ‘grey sex’ hides out. The plot is complex, sometimes too convoluted and digressive, but intriguing nonetheless. What drives this book is the love that Sascha realizes he has for Dora and unraveling the mystery of who Dora really was.

The fact was I had misunderstood Dora when she had expressed the wish to see me ‘under different circumstances’. The fact was she must have ended her life as a minette. The fact was she hadn’t been looking for a sibling. The fact was, too, I had taken cover in her closet, however much I wished to pretend otherwise. The very least I could do now, when it might prove to be too late already, was to assume responsibility for my actions – even if that meant the truth about me would come out. I recalled the song I had heard, drifting in from the gramophone in Dora’s living room, carrying the unmistakable scent of sexual promise:

Drive, obscure, I’m in your wicked hands,
all shrewd ache and furtive glance.
Drive, obscure, you deny me nothing,
three years in jail for one thing.

Uncomfortable, I realised the words of the great Rigoberto might come true sooner than I prefer.

It is difficult to go too much into detail for fear of revealing too much of what makes this thriller so appealing. The writing is beautiful, if at times verbose, which I think is mainly attributed to Fioretos not only being the author but the translator as well. I do not think I am a huge fan of translating their own work because they seem to get trapped in trying to convey what they meant in the original language not only as a translator but as author. A translator gives us that removed objectivity that is not deterred by the writer’s subjectivity. There are a few instances where I questioned the translation which, as a reader, I am normally not disrupted enough to think about that. This aside, Fioretos is a writer of talent with the ability to blend mystery, humor, history and character in a novel that is easy to read and difficult to forget.

The Truth About Sascha Knisch
By Aris Fioretos
Translated from the Swedish by Aris Fioretos
Rookery Press
306 Pages
ISBN: 978-1-58567-957-7

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