This novel has something of Babylon Berlin about it, it’s certainly a thrilling read, one thread is a spy story and the evocation of the inter-war city is pungent and tactile. That said this is far more ambitious novel, closer to Hans Fallada’s Wolf Among Wolves (1938). Although of course, written nearly fifty years after WWII Nebenzal has the benefit of hindsight. That said, Café Berlin is forensic in its dissection of Weimar Germany (the poverty and deprivation, the facade of gaiety) and the corruption and brutality of the Nazi Reich leading to war. This novel is emotional, psychologically insightful, both on a personal and political level and bitingly intelligent. I have no doubt I will still be thinking about Daniel Saporta and his story for a long time to come.
We first meet Daniel Saporta, starving and cold in the attic where he is hiding from the Nazis, in November 1943. We know he has at least another sixteen months to hold out if he is to survive the war – the allied bombs, the hunger, loneliness, despair and the little spy from the Hitler Youth who lives in one of the flats below. We wish him well. Saporta writes a diary, there is very little else to do, he tells us of his arrival in Berlin, a Jewish émigré, many years before . . .
The eighteen-year-old youth is thrown out of his benefactor’s house only to fall firmly on his feet at a time when many people are starving on the street. 1929, shortly after the Wall Street Crash has happened. The novel follows Saporta’s progress over the years, the good years, the bad years. What emerges is a portrait of a picaresque hero set against the background of a crumbling Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazis and WWII. In less than 300 pages Nebenzal not only relates Saporta’s story, but that of the nation, together with a sweeping history of Arab-Jewish relations in the Middle East and eastern Europe. The novel encompasses nineteenth century Syria and Damascus and war time Croatia. Café Berlin is a spy story, a love story and a literary historical novel. Nebenzal is an inventive writer and this is a stylish novel. Café Berlin is a portrait of the city, warts and all, the veneer of opulence and wealth that masks crushing poverty, misery and desperation. The juxtaposition of joy and sadness, attic mundanity/nightclub exoticism is stark and thrilling.
… What good ’s permitting some prophet of doom?
To wipe every smile away
Life is a cabaret, old chum!
So come to the cabaret!
[Cabaret – John Kander]
Perhaps that’s an unimaginative reference but it does seem so apt and as a film producer Nebenzal worked on the Fosse/Minnelli film. At one point in this novel a prophet of doom, it’s meant ironically of course, saves Daniel Saporta’s life with some simple but vital advice. The same person comes back into Saporta’s comfortable life later on and draws him into a conspiracy to spy on the Nazis for the British.
Daniel Saporta has been in hiding from the Nazis in Berlin since December 1941, he has been cooped up in an attic for nearly two years already. The novel opens with his dairy entry for 14th November, 1943. Lohmann has not visited for three days, Saporta is tired and hungry, but he knows the sacrifice his friend is making for him, the risk Lohmann runs in coming to see him and bring him food supplies. Harbouring a Jew would mean certain death, even for a party member. What has Saporta done to deserve this kind of loyalty from Lohmann?
Saporta met Lohmann in 1929, the day he was thrown out of the Landau house for seducing the children’s nursemaid. More likely Herr Landau realised that Madame Landau was having an affair with the young lodger since he arrived from Damascus. So, at eighteen, Saporta finds himself on the streets of the German capital. He is lucky he has a belt of gold coins from his family in Damascus, a safety net. Lohmann parades a sandwich board for a nightclub all day, not for wages but for food, he is resting outside the underground station. Lohmann recognises something in Saporta and takes him to the Klub Kaukasus for a meal and a beer. Klub Kaukasus is owned by a Russian émigré, a man decorated by the Czar, but he has come to the attention of the Prussian police, even though he fled the 1917 revolution a spell in Moabit prison awaits. Saporta with his romantic notion of a nightclub buys Kaukasus from the Russian, the man flees to Paris. Saporta is now the proud owner of a German business. He celebrates with Lohmann and the cook Tatyana Novikov. Lohmann gets a salary and both men sleep at the club. Months later the Oriental club opens, dancing girls from the east (Egyptian, Armenian, Circassian, Sudanese), Negro musicians from America and Mulatto chorus girls from Havana. Saporta turns to Dr. Steinbruch, a museum curator he met in the Orient express, for advice. Steinbruch believes the club is a good idea but Saporta has not appreciated the danger from the Nazis, they are becoming more powerful, the economic conditions play into their hands and the race laws against the Jews are being written. The greatest advice he offers Daniel, if he won’t leave Germany, is change your name, get a fake Arian identity.
‘ “Surely most Germans don’t believe such nonsense,” I interjected.’
“What I counsel you to do is to distance yourself completely from your former contacts. I suggest that before you open your cabaret you assume a new name and in the process creates a new persona for yourself . . .”
His new Spanish identity, Daniel Salazar, enables Saporta to thrive with the club but there is a price. Samira, one of the dancers, falls for Saporta, they are in love (he doesn’t see it clearly yet). Saporta will be forced to make a choice that will have a crippling effect on their relationship as Dr. Steinbruch comes back into his life. Among the new shadier clientele as time goes on is Nazi colonel Rabe.
This is the two track story of Saporta’s past and the time in the attic. Lohmann returns apologising for being late. If it wouldn’t embarrass him Saporta would hug him with gratitude. Café Berlin is a tale of spying, of love and betrayal, of fooling the Germans and of endings. Can Saporta survive the war? His life hangs in the balance and is inextricably linked to Lohmann’s. The strange and wonderful world of the cabaret, female circumcision, working class life and the German plan to turn the Arab nations against the Jews are among the topics covered.
Saporta is a fascinating and complex character, he discovers how much his Jewishness means to him, he has a conscience but he is capable of using others and we see him changed by the life of the club. Lohmann is often his conscience. His corruption is minor when compared to the Nazis but the time in the attic may, perversely, be the saving of him. Powerful and beguiling storytelling. An incredible debut novel, even from someone who worked in the film story business.
Harold Nebenzal, 1922-2019, was a marine in WWII (translator of Japanese) and later a Hollywood producer and screenwriter (working with John Huston, Ingmar Bergman, Billy Wilder, and many screen legends).
Paul Burke 5/4
Café Berlin by Harold Nebenzal
The Overlook Press 9781468316995 pbk May 2019