The tyranny of coolness – or not? Book review: 111 reasons to hate Berlin

Everybody loves Berlin. Especially if you are a cool person you just have to love Berlin, it is young, dynamic, creative, sexy, well, you know the list. Yes, everybody loves Berlin, except Kristjan Knall. Kristjan Knall does not love Berlin, in particular he does not love the Berliners, in particular the hipsters (this subspecies of Berliners who are actually generally not Berliners at all), and Berlin is the “hipster capital of the world”. “111 Gründe Berlin zu hassen. Die Stadt so, wie sie wirklich ist (111 reasons to hate Berlin. The city like it really is)” came out in March 2016 and is the second book by the young author devoted to Berlin, after “Berlin zum Abkacken (Berlin is a shithole)”. (How couldn’t you possibly agree with that, by the way?)

When people talk about Berlin these days, they are likely to talk about it in enthusiastic tones, they would constantly mention the magic of Berlin and its atmosphere, as if they had experienced Berlin only in some sort of prolongued hallucinated state, particularly if it is people who have moved to Berlin from some sleepy provincial town or some sleepy wretched country. Everybody who loves Berlin believes to know what Berlin means: creativity, freedom, artistry, techno music and parties, and freaks, lots of freaks, but being a freak is such a cool thing, right? Especially in a place like Berlin, which is supertolerant and where people are not shocked about anything, because “boah, I am ok, you are ok”.

Only, there certainly cannot be a lot of originality is everybody is trying to be a freak exactly the same way as everyone else. And arguably the group of hipsters that likes to take for themselves the right to dictate the cultural atmosphere of the city represents a very small minority of the population of a city that by now counts almost 4 million inhabitants. This group is certainly overrepresented in the creative industries and in the night scene, but living in Berlin is more than the start-up trying to sell a new fancy underwear brand with some Berlin logo or some underground hole with cheap ecstasy. Because let’s be honest, other than a liking for techno music, a strong taste for the odd in dressing and in the arts (supposedly for the sake of provocation), the androginous look, the intellectual showing off (but without being too involved, because when you are engaged you lose your cool and being cool is the most important thing), the religion of tolerance (who cares? I don’t care about you, you don’t care about me, and everybody is happy), the hipster culture does not have much to offer anymore. Nobody consciously wants to be a hipster but they all end up looking exactly the same. You need to see just one hipster and you feel you know all of them already. Like it often happens with new trends, the moment being a hipster became fashionable was the moment the hipster culture lost that bit of originality it might have had.

And in reality besides the hipster tribe, there is very little in Berlin which has even the facade of being cool, and Kristjan Knall, with the unique and caustic sarcasm which you can learn only in Berlin (in other places, this sort of “sense of humour” would probably be considered borderline sociopathic), is constantly reminding us of that. In spite of its alternative reputation, in spite of the 68 spirit, in spite of the whole gay and love parades, in spite of entire ethnic neighbourhoods, there is actually still much that smacks of Prussian rigidity in Berlin. Because hey, anybody who wants can come to Berlin, but, boah, Berliners will always be Berliners, Mann, eh.

There were actually a lot of books about Berlin already, but if you really want to know something about life in Berlin, you can skip them all. Just read Kristjan Knall. He is careful to stay away from the same tiresome slogans repeated a million times over the last thirty or so years. Like the author says in the book, Berlin has become a brand, and like every brand, it is fake.

Here is a quote from his last book:

”Berlin is not only a shithole. it is even more of a shithole than it was before. And this is a real achievement. Berlin gives a complete new definition of shithole. And still: there are even more freaks coming. Every new step in your chucks down these streets will take you further to the ruin. Down there, there are the old Berliners waiting now: begrudging, revolting, bad to the backbone. You can gentrify them away, put sepia filters on their miserable existence and describe them so creatively, but it will not change the reality: in 20 years you will be just like them”

Kristjan Knall does not do literature. This is a not a beautiful book. It does not try to make things look desirable or attractive. Many readers did not like the book and many were outright offended. Well, that’s the price a writer has to pay sometimes when he tells the truth. I have no doubt that Kristjan Knall really does not like Berlin very much. Some readers with an inclination towards a romantic sensitivity, always willing to see the bright side of things, could engage in some abstruse interpretations and say that in reality Kristjan Knall loves Berlin and that this book is testimony to that. This is bullshit. But I know that Kristjan Knall would not be possible in a place other than Berlin, he could not live anywhere else, because he is a true Berliner in the soul: you need to have lived with the Berliner Schnauze for a long time to understand the spirit of his abrasive writing. And if one wants to understand the true spirit of Berlin, this book is required reading.

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