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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Creatives in profile: interview with Paul Scraton

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Paul Scraton is a writer and editor who grew up in Lancashire in the north of England and now lives in Berlin, Germany. Among various projects, Paul is the Editor in Chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place and also contributes to Slow Travel BerlinCaught by the River. The author of Ghosts on the Shore: Travels Along Germany’s Baltic Coast, his fiction debut is  Built on Sand (published by Influx Press), which paints a picture of Berlin through a series of interconnected short stories; and in this, we discover a city three decades on from the fall of the wall, and in many ways still coming to terms with that history.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

SCRATON

I am a British-born writer based in Berlin. I have been living in the German capital since 2002. I feel at home both in the north of England and in Germany, and I feel an outsider in both at the same time. As a writer, I don’t think it’s a bad place to be.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

SCRATON

I have wanted to be a writer since I was about seventeen or eighteen, and although I have lots of interests, mainly involving getting outdoors, books and literature remain very important to me.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you, and why?

SCRATON

Family and friends, of course, and each of them in their own unique way. When it comes to writing, it changes frequently, depending on what I am reading! At the moment I am thinking a lot about how history shapes the present, and how the stories of the past, and our knowledge of them, are particularly important in the current political climate. In this I have been thinking a lot recently about the writings of Joseph Roth and Daša Drndić. When it comes to writing on place, a long-term inspiration is Jan Morris. Her writing combines an interest in others with sharp observation, two of the most important components, I think, in any successful literature of place.

INTERVIEWER

How has your time as editor of the Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, influenced the way you view the relationship between place and imagination? And how important a role does setting play in your own creative writing?

SCRATON

I think the fact that I was already interested in place and how the stories of a landscape and people can shape our understanding not only of that specific location but elsewhere is one of the main reasons that I founded the journal with Julia Stone. When it comes to my own writing, whether fiction, nonfiction or something in between, my main themes are history, memory and identity, and as such place is at the core of nearly everything I commit to paper.

INTERVIEWER

It has been said that events like the Brexit vote in the UK have brought to light the differences between so-called ‘anywhere’s’ and ‘somewhere’s – i.e. people who essentially view themselves as citizens of the world, with no particular attachment to their home town or country of origin, and those who view the world directly through the prism of their geographic origins. Do you subscribe to this as an accurate view? Or is this polarity too simplistic a view to take?

SCRATON

I think there is something going on here that needs to be understood, but I imagine it is more complex than a simple divide between citizens of ‘somewhere’ and Theresa May’s ‘citizens of nowhere.’ I think there is a certain sense of dislocation feeding dissatisfaction for many people, not only in the UK but elsewhere. There is a difference in the populist movements that can be observed in the US, the UK, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Italy, Poland… but one common thread is a kind of nostalgia for a rooted sense of belonging that communities supposedly had in the past. And that globalisation and all that comes with it have broken the ties that bound a community together.

This is the danger of nostalgia, that it in turn creates a sense of ‘belonging’ and identity that is exclusive rather than inclusive. That it idealises a non-existent golden era that could be returned to. People call these movements new, but there is very little in them that we haven’t seen before. What is new is the role of the internet and the media, and how it allows dangerous ideas to spread and take hold. And whenever people are split, into somewhere and nowhere, us and them, it is always important to ask: in whose interest are we being divided? It is very rarely the people themselves.

On a personal level, I would like to think of myself as both a ‘citizen of everywhere’ and, as someone born in a different country to the one where I’ve made my home, a person committed to being a ‘citizen of somewhere’ in that I want to be part of my community and understand the stories and the history that brought us to where we are in Berlin and Germany today. I have no doubt that it is possible to be both, to be both internationalist and local in outlook.

INTERVIEWER

When writing, can you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you go from blank page to fully fledged story or novel?

SCRATON

I make a lot of notes. I think a lot. I go for a walk or a run. I spend a lot of time looking and feeling like I am not doing very much at all. But I have always been someone who likes to have a plan, have it fixed – whether in my head or on paper – what it is I am going to do. So it can take a while to get to the blank page (or computer screen) but then when I get there I tend to write quite quickly as I have worked most of the problems out already.

INTERVIEWER

How do you decide when a piece of writing is ‘finished’?

SCRATON

I think I have to get to a draft I am not totally unhappy with. That is usually after two or three goes at it. Then I give it to my partner Katrin, who is always my first reader and who has an excellent bullshit and pretension detector, and whose judgement I trust more than any other. Basically when she gives the green light I feel comfortable to send it off, to the editor or to post it on my blog or whatever. If she tells me its not working, I’ll probably argue with her for a bit, go quiet, and then return to my desk because deep down I know she was right after all.

INTERVIEWER

Your fiction debut Built on Sand will be published in April this year. What has the experience of firstly writing the book, and then seeing it published, been like?

SCRATON

This is the second book I have written for my publishers Influx Press, and so I knew how the practicalities would work. My editor, Gary Budden, is someone who I greatly respect both as a publisher but also as a writer. We share many common interests and outlook on the world and in particular how we write about it (although our styles are different). So when I came up with the idea of a collection of stories set in Berlin and the landscapes around, I felt that it would be a project he would be interested in and would be able to help me realise. What changed during the writing and the editing process was the realisation that what I had – what we had – was actually a novel, that although each story could stand alone, together they told a wider story.

The second time around (and the book is not out at the time of writing) it is interesting to see how much easier it has been to get people to notice the book. I don’t know if it is because it is the second book, if it is because it is a novel (and set in Berlin, which must surely help), or if it is because the publishers are a more established name themselves… most likely it is a combination of all of the above.

INTERVIEWER

What are your hopes for the book?

SCRATON

All the main hopes were in the writing and bringing it to publication, and they’ve been fulfilled. Of course, I hope people discover it and like what I have written. And I hope that some of the themes in the book will resonate, and will make people think about their own relationships to place, and how history and memory, both collective and personal, shape our understanding of the world around us.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any personal responsibility as a writer?

SCRATON

Only in that I am still trying to find the best way to say what it is I want to say, so my responsibility is to keep working on it.

INTERVIEWER

In an age of ‘abject’ incomes for authors and poets, how can aspiring creatives pursue their passions while also making ends meet?

SCRATON

I think we all have to accept that – with the exception of the very few – most of us will need to do other work to pay the bills. I do copywriting and other bits and pieces for travel companies and content agencies. I do walking tours on the streets of Berlin (which has certainly been good for honing the storytelling skills).  I don’t really have an answer because I still know that I am one of the lucky ones. I have time to write. I can make time to travel. I have a supportive partner. There are people with much more difficult circumstances than mine who create amazing things, and I am in awe of them. The deeper question is, why do we as society not value art and music and literature in a way that means that artists, musicians and writers can live from their work? Because the danger is that the majority of voices we will hear will increasingly come from a privileged minority, those who can afford, one way or the other, to “pursue their passions”. This will have the knock-on effect of only increasing the idea that the arts are for the few and not for the many.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you and your writing? Are there any exciting projects we should be looking out for?

SCRATON

I have started the next novel and have some loose ideas for nonfiction books, one set in the north of England and the other in the hills of Germany. All three books will no doubt continue to explore ideas of history, memory, identity and place. As I answered earlier: I am still trying to work out the best way to say what it is I want to say.

 

 

The same but different

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Berlin

Berlin is not what you’d call ‘chic’. A lot of the city was flattened in the war and the subsequent Wall drama kept it on its toes, driven by practicality rather than aesthetics. It’s fairly square and industrial, with huge signs of corporations stretching over streets and into the sky. Occasionally, however, you find an old building that remains un-bombed – a relic from another age. I was there last weekend, with two old friends, Bex and Charlotte. Our apartment was in one of these old structures, above an Indian restaurant. Inside, there was a wide, shallow-stepped staircase, hidden by huge heavy oak doors.

Our host, Gesine, emerged from the darkness of the flat with a runny nose and sore throat.

‘I feel like shit,’ she said. ‘Also the apartment is very historical. Look at the bullet holes in the door. They are from the second world war.’

We dragged our cases back out to look at the holes. There they were. Then we dragged everything back in.

The flat was small and massive at the same time. There was a tiny, low-ceilinged hallway, full of piles of miscellany everywhere. Sewing equipment, boxes of beer, creepy dolls with cracked faces – if Gesine owned something, she stacked it, normally under something heavier. But if you could break through the hall, you reached the rooms prepared for us, which were huge and light but still weird, with cinema seats and paintings of wobbly fruit.

‘I did the bathroom myself,’ Gesine said. She had, as well. She’d signed the painted tiles with her name and gave us a bucket to take into the shower. I’m not sure why.

But we didn’t come all the way to Berlin to look at tiles and wobbly fruit. We came for food and culture and more food.

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Brandenburg Gate

Charlotte’s boyfriend, Andy, is a good cook who is picky about where he eats. He refuses to go to restaurants that have pictures of their food on posters outside or on the menu. In Berlin, Andy would starve. If it wasn’t a photograph of schnitzel, it was a portion of fries, or a burger or a pizza. Every restaurant in Mitte, it seemed, threw photographic evidence of their cooking at you. Of course, it’s our own fault. We can’t speak German. If they told us they served Hähnchen or Kartoffeln or Eintopf, we wouldn’t know what the hell that was, so of course they have to label everything. This became a recurring theme of the trip: language shame. The locals looked at us, knew we were English and started to speak in English. I’d downloaded Duolingo on my phone, brought a phrasebook with me, but I kept getting zwei and drei mixed up and they had to go back for another glass. I was causing pain and confusion, making everyone’s lives difficult, but still I persisted because I am English and ashamed.

The waiting staff were using a lot of English – the English seemed to be the only people out. The streets were wide and deserted. We walked a few miles a day, from one landmark to another, without seeing many people. Then we’d stop for lunch or dinner and hear someone at the next table order ‘two ham and mushroom pizzas, please.’ So where were the Germans? Probably inside because it was freezing. It was only the English, in their bobble hats, clogging up the Straßen.

It got me thinking about the ways people are the same and the ways people are different. When I lived in Paris, I met a guy from a tribe in Indonesia. He was in my French language class and wanted to show us pictures of the particular kind of batik (dyed cloth) his tribe were famous for producing but he couldn’t because the projector wasn’t working. He pressed a few buttons, shrugged and sat down with his arms folded in a way that reminded me of the boys at my high school in Lincolnshire. Now, when I travel, I like to spot the domestic arguments in languages I can’t understand. Mitsuko having a go at Akihiko because he’s put the hand sanitizer in the wrong pocket of the rucksack and now she can’t find it, daughters getting ratty with their fathers in Swahili. It makes me feel good, the idea that no matter where we come from or the language we speak, we’re all basically the same. It makes me feel good but I don’t know if it’s true – not anymore.

A lot of things have happened recently that have made me think my comfortable truth is a lie. I was in Paris when the Brexit vote was announced, had a depressing meal out with friends where we all stared into our pizza and wondered what the hell was happening. And now, thirty years after the Berlin Wall came down, we have a man in America trying to put another one up. We’re not all the same. People think insane things, do terrible things as a result, and from the outside, it’s sometimes difficult to tell who they are.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is just along the road from the Brandenburg Tor, so we did both in an afternoon. The Memorial is next to a building site which, to be honest, is the same for most things in Berlin. It’s a load of grey blocks of various shapes and heights, assembled in a dip so they look more or less level from the top, with a museum underneath.

‘The vibe’s a bit off,’ Charlotte said, as we stared out at the cubes. A group of tourists were taking selfies as they stood on the blocks. ‘It’s a bit weird. The way it’s just here, in the middle of everything.’

On the other side of the monument I could see the light of a Subway sandwich shop. We went down into the museum and it seemed clear, then, that that was the point. The people getting murdered were ordinary and the people doing the murdering were ordinary too. You stare into the faces of these people and you see shop assistants, student, doctors, teachers. Then you come out of the museum and you’re back on Ebertstraße, buses rolling past. We like our evil at the edges of the city, where we know where it is, but it walks among us, sits at the next table, gets on the train behind us. You’d think we’d have learned by now that evil doesn’t come in a uniform. It’s in that moment, when we reduce a person to one thing, rather than a load of contradictions, that we do the damage.

The more you learn about nationalism and monarchy and all that, the more you realise what a huge mess it is. On our final day, we went to Charlottenburg Palace which is basically the German Versailles and was even built by the same architect, Dutchman Johann Friedrich von Eosander. Charlottenburg was built in the 17th century under the instruction of Sophie Charlotte, wife of King Fredreich I and sister to George I of England. It’s just the one family tree, you see, spanning the whole of Europe. It gets even worse when Queen Victoria starts having children, planting them in every royal dynasty she can. They all copy each other’s interior design skills too. It’s all impressive, but there’s no escaping the fact that these palaces do look the same. They share architects, employ the same engravers, all dabble in chinoiserie and have whole rooms devoted to their porcelain. One room in Charlottenburg resembled Gesine’s flat, with chinoiserie ornaments piled high one on top of the other, duplicated a million times over by the mirror panelling and reflections in the golden gilt.

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Charlottenburg Palace. “Waiting for it all to come crashing down.”

‘I’m just waiting for it all to come crashing down,’ Charlotte whispered.

Up at the top, near the ceiling, was a stuffed stag lunging down the wall towards the vases. No placard or segment in the audio guide – just the corpse with glassy eyes.

 

Upstairs, there was an exhibition about the origin of the Prussian royal family. In order to pad out their lineage, they made up a person called Otto who was a great fighter and won a load of battles. There were painting and engravings in his honour. He was amazing, Otto. He just didn’t exist which, when you’re establishing a royal house, apparently doesn’t matter.

Finally, on our way to the airport at the end of the trip, I got my domestic argument. Behind us on the train was a woman with two small wailing children, one of which was brandishing a fully-functioning toy shop till, complete with flapping receipt paper. At one point, the woman, who I assumed to be his grandmother, grabbed it off him and shouted. When this did not silence the children, she FaceTimed a man who must have been their father or grandfather, who screamed at them in Arabic. She then shouted at them again and they disembarked with us at the airport, till training behind. Perhaps us the kid was going to charge us for his screaming? We got a move on before we ran up a bill.

If there’s one thing that’s going to unite people, it’s bad service from an airline. Our airline of choice seemed keen to strip everything right back to basics, doing just enough to keep you airborne, while a member of cabin crew wheeled a trolley of cut-price cologne down the aisle. Before we even boarded, they told us our flight would be delayed, then that it wasn’t, then kept us all cooped up in the tiny area beyond security for an hour. When we finally got on the plane, the ice on the wings had to be thawed. They did this slowly, with a truck that seemed to be powered by a single AA battery.

‘They charged us an extra thirty quid so we could sit together,’ the couple in the row in front muttered to the German woman next to me. ‘We’re never flying with this lot again,’ they said.

‘We always say that and yet we always do,’ said the man next to them. He’s right – we’re all the same really. Except for the ones of us that aren’t.

About the author of this article

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 @ellenrlavelleon Twitter.