This absorbing and compelling read tells of Nastja’s experience of coming from Kiev to work in Berlin to earn the money she cannot earn at home.
Nastja’s story is narrated to us by Natascha Wodin herself. It is discreetly interwoven with historical and political information about Ukraine, Crimea, the old Soviet Union and the new Russia. The subtlety with which this is achieved ensures that the book stays a book about Nastja and her home country, Ukraine, and not (yet) another book about the Wall coming down.
There is an extraordinary range of action and ideas included in a mere 182 pages. I think this is achieved by the highly effective device of there being virtually no direct speech as well as by Wodin’s writing style. She recounts in the writer’s voice – clear, strong, objective, quiet in tone, and yet still able to paint a most absorbing narrative.
Now in possession of a residence permit, she felt she could indulge in occasional forays through the city streets, a spring in her step even after a ten-hour day. She walked and walked, pausing here and there only to check her rucksack for reassurance that the miracle-working document that allowed her all this walking was still there. Only now did she take in anything of her surroundings, simply because she was no longer on the run.
Berlin was still in celebratory chaos following the Fall of the Wall. Nastja’s favourite route took her round the district of Prenzlauer Berg where the streets were filled with characters and scenarios never before seen by the girl from Kiev. For one thing, there was dancing in the street, then the most daring of fire-eaters showing off their art, here an exuberant Eastern European street band, and there a man in shorts was parading his tattoos, the Statue of Liberty on his right thigh, the Eiffel Tower on his left. And look, a young woman with long hair the colour of the greenest grass, then another, sporting long lace-up boots, her hair the colour of straw and wound round her head as one fat, matted dreadlock. The run-down buildings, crumbling here and there and reminding Nastja of dried-out cake, were bright with painted daubs and scribbles as if extra-terrestrials had passed by and left indecipherable signs. Many buildings boasted makeshift balconies of scaffolding, cleverly transformed into seating areas by residents as they climbed out of windows, adding a chair or two and even the odd sofa. There was no escaping the din of jackhammers, relentlessly reshaping this world into something different, something new, something Nastja couldn’t picture at all.
Back in Ukraine she hadn’t ever realised how comforting it had been to believe there was a better world than hers. Now she’d arrived in the better world, she’d lost that comfort. No promise just beyond the horizon, no place to focus her thoughts on, no Land of Dreams to step into.
And yet she liked what she saw. She marvelled at the number of children out and about, babies wrapped in colourful cloth slings, proudly carried by their mothers, by fathers, too, toddlers in pushchairs or on the kiddie seat of a grown-up’s bike, or in a trailer on the back. Other children were running here and there, playing with random dogs nobody seemed scared of, or darting about on little wooden scooters. In Ukraine all this would have been unthinkable. Back home, children were clucked over and sheltered, shielded from every possible draught, constantly watched in case they took a tumble or did something they weren’t supposed to. Children didn’t usually appear on the street, and if they did it was firmly holding Mum’s hand. Nobody took children on daily errands and in any case, in Kiev, people didn’t walk through the streets without a purpose and destination, like going to the metro or a shop. Here it was different, people seemed to be in the streets for the fun of it, strolling, chatting, casually dressed, almost carelessly, some sitting in street cafés, others enjoying the sun on a seat outside their doorways, or just sitting on patches of grass, many reading the while. Everyone had someone to smile at, everyone seemed to know everyone else, to have a secret to share. Beers, filled rolls and cakes were on sale from ground-floor windows while the regular shops, partially obscured by scaffolding poles, offered a display of vegetables and fruit the like of which Nastja had never seen, fresh herbs she couldn’t even begin to identify, impossibly shiny red apples without a blemish.
Often you had only to cross the street to put yourself in another world. She would roam Berlin as if crossing in and out of different countries, their shared feature being languages she hadn’t mastered. The Roman alphabet was all over the place, she could read it but rarely understood anything. Here she was, living in shame like an illiterate, for the German language remained mercilessly, relentlessly alien to her, as if refusing to pass through her lips, as if she, Nastja, wasn’t good enough. She felt it would be a betrayal to let German in, a betrayal of the world she came from, the world that would always be hers, however wretched and desolate it might be.
From time to time she’d happen upon a Ukrainian street musician, playing the fiddle or an accordion in some underpass or square, mostly familiar Ukrainian folk melodies, tunes she knew well. One of them, sitting together with his accordion on the steps to the Reichstag, told her how several times a year he’d take some illegal route or other through Poland and spend a month in Berlin, playing his music on the street by day and sleeping in the backroom of a Russian restaurant by night. Then he’d travel back to his village in Ukraine, to his family, who could live for a good three or four months on the proceeds, allowing him a fair bit of time at home before he had to set off again on the forbidden route to Berlin.
Just this short exchange with a fellow countryman stirred anew the homesickness that had become the underlying emotion in her life. It had been so long since she’d seen Slava, pale and lean, his two front teeth missing, the boy who wanted to be a magician someday and had always said so bravely that he wasn’t hungry, not at all, you should eat something yourself, Nana. She longed to see her close friends again, women like Shlyapka, with her collection of crazy hats, Sonechka with her chestnut curls and those unexplained bouts of stammering, Lenka, so quiet and old-fashioned, a bit like a governess out of the last century, but given to the funniest of remarks that had everyone in stitches. As for her daughter, Vika, it had yet again been months since she’d had any news.
One day she could no longer resist the temptation and made her way from Wedding to the city-centre address of the unknown couple alleged to be her Jewish parents. There was the name beneath the door-bell. Katz. Piotr had clearly exploited facts to create the fiction. Baruch and Rosa Katz really did exist. Peering at the name-plates, she guessed they were on the first floor and just to the left, but had no idea a woman with the same name in her passport was standing outside. It was one of those semi-derelict buildings, its flaked exterior showing the usual darkened masonry, the three first-floor windows decked with grime, a faded house-plant pressing its last, wilted leaves against the muck-obscured window pane. Nastja had crossed to the other side of the street, and just as she was gazing up at the windows and imagining Mr and Mrs Katz behind them, the main door opened and out came an elderly lady with a shopping bag. To Nastja she looked very Ukrainian, dressed in a floral frock, her eyebrows heavily pencilled, and with every step her downtrodden shoes scuffed the tarmac. Nastja’s heart was pounding. Was this the woman whose name she’d appropriated? Any minute she might turn her head, glance over, and then she’d recognise her … Nastja stood as if paralysed for one, long moment, then collected herself and walked away.
Excerpted from Natascha Wodin, Nastjas Tränen, © 2021 by Rowohlt Verlag GmbH, Hamburg.