Book review: ‘Built on Sand’, by Paul Scraton

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Paul Scraton’s Built on Sand is described on its own cover as a novel, but those looking for a clear protagonist and a consistent story will be disappointed. They are the only ones, however. The book is challenging and demands concentration from readers, but is written beautifully; no barriers crop up as a result of the language. Though I found the fragmented stories unsettling at first, unsure which characters would appear again later, a few chapters in I felt confident in Scraton’s hands. I didn’t need to know what would be relevant later because I believed Scraton did. To me, the book read not like a novel but a mosaic of fictional stories, memory and memoir, arranged together to create something impressive when you take a step back.

To say the stories are ‘set’ in Berlin downplays the presence of the city in the book. Scraton’s narrator is unnamed, the domestic dramas reduced to background noise. What would usually be the backdrop or context of a novel is brought forward as the focus of the book. We hear about forests, lakes and S-Bahn stations as main events. The narrator’s relationship with his girlfriend, the death of his flatmate, his friendships with other Berliners emerge throughout the book, but always within the context of something else – a trip to a lake, a village, a protest march. This could have been a mistake and made the book very dry, where it not for the fact that the backdrop is so incredibly interesting.

The detail in the stories does not read like research but knowledge accumulated over a lifetime. Scraton has built his life in Berlin and now even gives guided tours of the city. This experience seems to have informed his writing, as he dispenses information with confidence and then walks on. He tackles the big subjects – the historical persecution of Jews, the rise of the Nazis, the trains to the death camps, the invasion of the Red Army, the massacres, the unrest, the Wall – but embeds them within the context of everyday life, a city still moving.

Take the character of Annika, for example. A mapmaker, she attempts to trace the steps of Moses Mendelssohn, an 18th-century Jewish philosopher, who first arrived in the city through the Rosenthal Gate, the only entrance Jews (and cattle) were permitted to use. The Gate is no longer standing, so Annika has to guess where she thinks it would be. Her imaginary Gate stands not far from her own apartment and the cemetery where Mendelssohn was eventually buried. Later, next to the burial site, the Gestapo turned an old people’s home into a collection point for the Jews of the neighbourhood. They were then transported to Grunewald station, loaded onto cattle trucks and deported to extermination camps. ‘Having removed the living, the Gestapo returned with the dead,’ Scraton writes. The burial ground where Mendelssohn was laid to rest became a mass grave for three thousand murdered Jews and three thousand victims of bombing raids. All a short walk from Annika’s apartment where, years later, she makes her maps.

It’s heavy stuff, which is possibly why Scraton has written the novel in fragments. Stories about genocide and murder are interspersed with stories of old friends, of secret bowling alleys in pubs, of art and life. One particular section has an almost Brothers Grimm feeling, as we return to mapmaker Annika, who has moved to the forest with her family and becomes entranced by a mysterious neighbour. Scraton seems to say all these stories are ‘true’, even the fictional ones, and that they coexist, occupying the same space, the same city, built on shifting sand.

This tension reverberates throughout the book. The narrator describes a father trying to explain the significance of the holocaust to his young daughter at the Platform 17 memorial, ‘But we were struggling to comprehend it ourselves.’ After visiting the memorial, the narrator and his girlfriend go swimming. Scraton writes:

‘Despite starting the morning at Platform 17 and all the stories that lingered there beside the rusting railway tracks, this moment that came after, on the lake and in the sunshine, feeling K’s body against mine as we sat there, was to be one of my happiest Berlin memories’.

It is uncomfortable and jarring, but true. Moving on isn’t a choice, a decision made by a committee; Scraton implies it is inevitable, that new lives are built on top of memory, not by denying their existence.

The book is about people(s) and crowds, rather than individuals and it is sometimes difficult to remember who is who, which backstory relates to which person. There is very little physical description, not much to help make connections. This said, there are still some good character moments. Towards the end of the book, we meet museum guide Frau Grautoff. Despite the sombre nature of the exhibition, she’s perky and enthusiastic, keeps telling the narrator that, regardless of whether they’re maps, cranes, birds or exhibits, she could ‘look at them for hours.’ There’s a painful argument between Annika and her partner, with him trying to provoke her into an emotional response and her disappointing him repeatedly. It’s a book about collectives, migration, armies and populations, but there are moments when Scraton swoops down and picks out something personal. It’s effective and moving, but for some readers, might not be enough.

Closure is not an option here. We get hints of domestic unrest from the narrator, but not enough to get a sense of resolution from the ending. However, the book is all about shifting sands. Closure demands a moment of stasis, a moment to get your bearings, for calm reflection. Berlin is constantly moving and in Built on Sand, the reader works to keep up.

About the reviewer

Ellen Lavelle

Ellen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.

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