By BRUCE DENNILL
Deon Maas’ new book Witboy In Berlin: Adventures In The First World is an examination of the author’s time settling into the German capital as a resident, rather than as just a visitor…
Changing location as a parallel for changing a mindset: you’re someone who likes to explore intellectually as well as physically or as a tourist. How satisfying was it for you to discover sympathetic perspectives in a community you’d just joined?
I am not so sure that I have truly discovered sympathetic perspectives in the community I joined. We are still feeling each other out. I am also changing in the way I see things, getting older and wiser, and my new environment is also changing my perspective. I find that I am doing more listening than talking for the first time in a while. As South Africans, we are very opinionated and those opinions aren’t always received in the same way that they are back in the old country. Having said that, it is great not to feel like the odd one out. For the first time in my life, I feel like I am blending in and that’s a great feeling. The range of views in Berlin is broader than I have ever encountered. That is also challenging me to rethink some of my ideas.
And how strange was it (or sad, if you felt you were searching and missing out in South Africa)?
I will never knock South Africa. I am what I am today because of where I grew up and lived. If things were easier, perhaps I would have developed into something else. And, faulty or not, I like who I am.
Witboy In Berlin is a travelogue, but of limited scope in terms of revealing the details of Berlin that a visitor might want to know. How did you go about deciding what to write about; what story to tell?
I write what I am exposed to. That is the advantage of a non-fiction writer. At first I considered doing stuff that would make me feel uncomfortable, like going to a nude sauna or a schlager-concert, but I decided against that. As I was discovering the city, I had questions about how it got to be the way it is in the same way that I ask questions about myself about why I think the way I do. These questions lead to research to find the answers. I wanted to understand how the hip-hop scene worked, so I did an interview with Army of Brothers. I wanted to understand how politics work, so I did an interview with a political party representative. These questions were for me. Then it became a book. This was like that school task that you had to do during the holidays that you enjoyed more than you expected to.
Did you write more and cut back later, or was there a specific vision to begin with?
You will not believe this, but the book was supposed to be Witboy In Europe. The idea was to start with us now living in Berlin, becoming the people that I was going to take the piss out of for the rest of the book. Picking on all their weird habits, their arrogance and their entitlement. When I looked again I was halfway through the book, just writing my heart out, and I was still in Berlin. So then it became a book about Berlin. Once the decision was made by myself and my publisher Annie Olivier to stick to a book about Berlin, I had to sit back and bring more of a structure to it. My two previous books were both essays, so this is my first long-form book. I had to extend certain storylines and throw others out. It became quite a task. These structures were constructed as I was doing my dog walking every morning. I really enjoyed the challenge. It was like a new adventure for me as a writer.
What do you look for in good travel writing (as a reader)?
Witboy In Berlin is very much what I look for in a travel book: first-person experiences mixed with history, pop culture and politics. I need to understand what is going on in the writer’s head as well as the environment they find themselves in. Everything has to be put into perspective. Things are the way they are because of stuff that happened in the past. You cannot understand your surroundings if you do not have the historical perspective of what created that.
Romance and reality: you debunk a lot of the “grass is greener” myths for South Africans looking abroad, but you also embrace some aspects of day-to-day life in a big European city that not everyone would necessarily find attractive (regular protests, for one thing).
Everybody does things in their own way. Within certain limits you can determine your own comfort and happiness. We just kind of packed our bags and left like we would have if we moved to Cape Town. The enormity of the decision only struck us when we got here and realised what a challenge the move really was. We rolled the dice and were lucky enough to get the six. If you overthink, you may just decide not to do it, and that would be a huge mistake. I have always had a “fools rush in where angels fear to tread” attitude about life, so it worked. I have also done long-term work projects in the past all over the world and that made me realise that you have to adapt to your circumstances. This is a no way a guide to “how to move to a new country”. It’s merely a book that reflects our experiences. Read it and enjoy it. Do not read it to learn. I have never been a good teacher.
In that light, and based on your experiences so far, what personality types are best suited to Berlin (it’s a multi-faceted place; there will be aspects you don’t like that others will)?
Berlin, like any other big city has a wide range of people, but I do believe that it is a state of mind rather than a physical place. If you are not open-minded, Berlin is not the place for you. But then, if you are not open-minded, you wouldn’t move to a new city, would you? I hate to perpetuate the myth of Berlin, selling it as a you-can-do-anything-you-want kind of place without any consequences, but there is some truth to it. At the same time, it does have supermarkets and shops are closed on Sunday. And there are police, even though they tend to be more attractive than the average cop we are used to.
Did writing this book help you process your transition from one life to another?
It definitely served as a vehicle for me to understand my new surroundings better. The research and the travels within the city walls challenged me to go out and find out what the city is about. Did it serve as a psychological cleanser? No. I do know more about this city now than a lot of people who have lived here a lot longer than me, but they are still more liable to get into Berghain than me. I understand a certain Berlin way of thinking and why it operates the way it does.
As such, is it likely that the follow-up (should one be planned) will be markedly different in tone (broadly speaking, from the perspective of a resident/insider rather than an immigrant/outsider?
I never return to the scene of the crime. It makes you a suspect. I’ve said what I wanted to say about Berlin and that’s it.
Did researching and writing Witboy In Berlin change the way you look at the immigration policy crises around the world at the moment?
I have always been sympathetic to the plight of immigrants and refugees. I question borders and the right of governments to refuse people entry based on archaic laws. The world should be a free place. My wife came here with a very lekker job in hand. We both had a decent education and have travelled extensively. If it was this difficult for us, I shudder to think what it must be like for a person who arrives in a rubber boat and have to live in a camp. Refugees and immigrants are caused by economic policies. European and US subsidies to their farmers and factories makes it cheaper to import than manufacture in Third World countries. This means that people will risk their lives walking through the Sahara desert, through war-torn Libya, where they are sold as slaves, and get on a leaky boat to cross the Mediterranean. To do that, you have to be desperate. Having worked extensively throughout Africa, I understand why this happens. The financial success of Europe is based on colonialism. It time for them to pay back their debt. Same goes for the US foreign policy in South America. They are paying for the sins of the fathers in the Biblical sense of the word.