Hurrying you along from one bustling cafe to the next train stop and plunking you down in the middle of an existential crisis, “Berlin Journal” by Josip Novakovich is travel literature at is best. More than a well-written itinerary entry, the journal is insightful and revealing. Novakovich speaks to the reader in an intentionally causal tone that is cut through every so often with a bleak reminder that he is not home. In this particular essay he is writing about six weeks that he spent in Berlin as a guest teacher at a university there. But his reasons for being in Berlin are merely a side note, Novakovich spends the majority of his time on the experience of the city rather than his purposes there.
At first it seems like Novakovich accidentally included a journal entry in his anthology: raw, unedited, and unexciting. This tool can be defined as tone characterization in my opinion, as the author makes a deliberate choice to use particular language throughout the piece, which gives it a very unhurried feel and anchors every scene in a precise setting and atmosphere. The excruciatingly specific details about everything from his taxi cab driver at the airport to the instructions on how to open his mail box seem to fall off the page after every period. Were they there in the first place? Did they matter? But then, as the piece goes on, the patter starts to emerge. Ah, the taxi driver is an immigrant too. The instructions are detailed and robotic, exactly the feelings he’s trying to escape from. These little details, though by themselves appear arbitrary and exhausting, fit into the larger narrative of a stranger abroad. For instance, there is a large section devoted to the description of prostitutes near a synagogue, but right in the middle is one sentence that gives Novakovich away:
A block away, girls lined the streets on the sidewalks and stood in the road off the curb. I didn’t see anybody stop by to pick them up, nor did any pedestrians come over to talk to them. I did not know what the laws were, but clearly, with so many police around, prostitution could be curbed unless it was legal. I wondered how many of them came from Moldavia and other poor ex-Soviet republics. Most prostitutes wore something tacky. It wasn’t even the amount of flesh revealed–some of the women sitting crosslegged in the sidewalk cafes revealed more–but the style; the extra-high heels, the fur collar atop an extra-short leather jacket.
The point is subtle, but then you remember that Novakovich is from one of these “poor ex-Soviet republics” and it doesn’t seem so odd now that he is taking down every detail of the women’s presence. However gaudy and unusual they are, they are worth remembering. He uses these carefully detailed stories throughout the essay to reveal more and more about himself without writing an explicitly philosophical memoir on the life of an immigrant.