Book Review: Built on Sand

Built on Sand, by Paul Scraton, is centred on Berlin. It explores the varied effects of an ever evolving place on those who call it home for a time. Told through events in the lives of the author’s friends and acquaintances while he was living there, it looks at, amongst other things: shifting borders and beliefs, dispossession, those who leave and return across generations. It is a story of individuals, their relationships and psychogeography. It portrays the transience of people and what defines them, as much as the place.

The first chapter introduces Annika, a mapmaker whose products are sold in a small number of bookstores and galleries. Her maps are themed to well known historical figures who have links to Berlin, providing details on significant locations during their stays there. Many of the buildings they would have frequented have gone but the street layout remains largely the same. Annika walks the city to gain a feel for what she is attempting to recreate.

“Bad news. Her maps, as a whole, told the story of the city, from its medieval origins on a malarial swamp to fifteenth-century riots, reformation and industrialisation, militarism and nationalism, National Socialism and communism, the Marshall Plan and the European Union.”

This sense of history permeates the city – its numerous destructions and endless rebuilding. The author is interested in the ghosts of the past that linger and how they affect those who pass through today.

The second chapter introduces a trio of men who met as boys living in the GDR and remained friends despite taking very different political paths as men. The author’s girlfriend retains her disdain for Markus in particular as he worked for the Stasi. The author is more interested in learning why Markus chose this path and how what he was required to do has affected him long term.

Other key characters in the narrative include the two young men the author shared a flat with when he first moved to Berlin. Their’s is a story of a close friendship when young that does not survive the changes wrought by passing years. At its heart is a tragedy and its repercussions.

Interesting additions to the cast are young people who were raised outside Germany, whose forebears told them stories of the country as it was then, including the lives and lands lost when they fled as refugees. The children or grandchildren visit and find themselves connected to the place despite it bearing little resemblance to the shared memories.

These personal anecdotes offer a vision of a city that exists only in such memories. Each of the people passing through are creating their own version which they will then carry and polish.

Over time borders are moved, walls built and knocked down, housing provided for workers and subsequently renovated for incomers. Reminders of conflict exist in memorials or the scarring of buildings by bullets or shrapnel. The people who come and go follow changing social and political beliefs. They may fight for what they think is right but this too changes with hindsight.

People are shaped by the stories they grow up with and how they interpret them when exposed to wider thinking. Some will embrace new developments but many hanker after what drew them to settle, even if only for a short while, in any given place. They value its history and the ghosts of their past selves, echoes existing in the shadows of recollection.

The writing has a melancholy edge which befits the many horrors Berlin has witnessed. The diverse reactions to events offer a variety of perspectives to consider. Although a very personal account the narrative offers broad insights, not least the folly of trying to cling to what has already passed by. It is a compelling, humane and intelligent portrayal of a city, its residents and inevitable change.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.

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