Then We Take Berlin:
Stories from the Other Side

by Stan Persky,
390 pages,
ISBN: 0394281055

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Hello to Berlin
by Keith Nickson

STAN PERSKY, WHO REVIEWS for the Globe and Mail and teaches philosophy at Capilano College in Vancouver, has written an ambitious though uneven book that provokes in ways that aren't always intended.

In this political/sexual gloss on post-Communist Europe, Persky sets out with a vague objective: to investigate the image of the Iron Curtain, "... a division as compelling as that of the 16th century, in which the Pope divided the world between the Spanish and the Portuguese." After a compelling but all too brief account of growing up Jewish in 1950s Chicago, Persky offers five chapters devoted to his recent travels in Poland, Germany, Albania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Lithuania.

Persky meets writers, politicians, journalists, artists, and just as many attractive young hustlers in the gay bars of Berlin and Warsaw. It quickly becomes clear that Persky cannot pursue politics unless he's getting laid by handsome boys. Over and over, Persky hits town, does a few interviews, locates the gay bars, and exhibits an endless capacity for romantic delusion -- despite the blatantly commercial nature of the transaction. Desire and eroticism are always Persky's primary interests. Indeed, when the stream of boys dries up in Zagreb, Persky conducts a fruitless interview with the writer Slavenka Drakulic and quickly boots it back to Berlin -the "Boyopolis" that teems with sexual possibility.

Two chapters, "The Translators' Tale" and "Berlin/Boyopolis," are richly textured, compelling narratives. In both cases, Persky frames his escapades with a metaphor that adds the historical depth and perspective missing from the other chapters. In "The Translators' Tale" Persky hears the fascinating tales of Pavli and Zef, two translators formerly employed by the communist regime of Albania. Pavli and Zef dutifully translated the Stalinist rhetoric of "Comrade" Enver Hoxha for 22 years along with the work of classic Western writers.

Persky happens to be reading Conrad's Heart of Darkness and deftly sketches in the parallels:

I found it easy to identify with its narrator, Marlow ... Albania seemed as distant as Marlow's destination and Comrade Enver Hoxha ... was a figure as forbidding as Kurtz ....

As we learn more about Albania under Communism, Persky folds the Heart of Darkness metaphor into the narrative. Zef, it turns out, has translated Conrad into Albanian. Of course, Persky meets a boy, Ilir, but this time there's no sex. Instead, Ilir performs an erotic dance that leaves Persky pleasantly ravished.

In the longest chapter, "Berlin/ Boyopotis", Persky discards his pursuit of politics and indulges strictly in the aesthetic and sexual pleasures of young men -- strong stimulants that inspire some powerful writing. This time, Persky frames his story against two parallel narratives from 1930s Berlin: the gay/literary adventures of Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Spender and the career of the boy photographer Herbert List. He writes of List's life during the rise of Nazism and also offers some decent art-photo criticism. With the onset of evening, Persky roams the same gay district frequented by Isherwood's circle and soon falls under the spell of Manuel, who sports "blue undies."

Persky's imagination is fully engaged by gay sexuality and aesthetics (he also wrote Buddy's: Meditations on Desire) but he gets into trouble with epistemology, of all things. In the world of philosophy, epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. Persky asserts that "... desire is the body's first epistemology." After some philosophical bunk, Persky admits he's at a dead end: "Perhaps the certainty of desire is simply useful until other, more interesting knowledge becomes available." Translation: erections come and go, but exploring the full dimensions of a human personality brings richer rewards.

Persky's avowed goal, to explore post-Communist Europe, is so broad that there's plenty of room for sex, politics, autobiography, art criticism, philosophy ... whatever. Persky argues that narratives naturally digress only to reconnect in meaningful ways. Well, I don't buy it on the evidence in Then We Take Berlin. Surely it's the writer's job to sketch in the connecting tissue, to give a glimpse of the whole canvas even as each section is painted in. As a consequence, two chapters are strong, independent narratives, while the rest remains an often fascinating patchwork.

And about all those boy hunks. I wasn't shocked by Persky's brief but explicit descriptions of gay sex. But I was disturbed by the fact that Persky -- a leftist writer looking at politics -- never once shows any interest in the social conditions that drive men into the perilous realm of hustling. Are they victims'? Are they entrepreneurs in the new Europe'? What about the politics of gay sex? Aside from their aesthetic and sexual appeal, these boys hold no interest for the author. We are left with the impression that Persky suffers from tunnel vision -- his view is penetrating and narrowly focused, not wide.


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