Daily Book Review: 'Black Deutschland' tells turbulent, intimate tale of Berlin

Sunday, February 21, 2016 - 7:19pm

“Black Deutschland” is author and literary critic Darryl Pinckney’s novel of wandering and escape, his first fiction since the 1992 “High Cotton.” Jed Goodfinch, a native of Chicago transplanted to Berlin in the 1980s, is a young gay Black man and a recovering addict. Having snagged a job with a megalomaniac architect, Rosen-Montag, Jed has gotten his first break after getting out of rehab and making a permanent move to Berlin, living at first with his cousin Cello.

The main periods of Jed’s life that the reader follows are his childhood in 1960s Chicago and his adult life in 1980s Berlin. Like many of the book’s characters, these two cities serve both as setting and as stand-ins for broader political forces: the Cold War and Civil Rights movement. It is filled with story after story of Black luminaries — W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass, Claude McKay — as well as anecdotes of Europeans’ treatment and representation of African diasporic people during the colonial era. The book feel immaterial and dispersed, somewhere between Jed’s life and the lives he evokes to make sense of his.

“Black Deutschland” is a slow-moving book that is less a coherent narrative than a mosaic of anecdotes, personal and historical. For Jed, even cruising Berlin and his hopes of getting with German guys is drawn against the backdrop of German history. “Berlin meant white boys who wanted to atone for Germany’s crimes by loving a black boy like me,” the book begins. Jed also questions what it means to live in the Berlin that is a “bureaucratic center of crimes against humanity, scene of the Congo Conference, scene of the Wannsee Conference.”

As a college dropout and recovering addict, Jed’s memories weigh on him: growing up in a middle-class Black household during the Civil Rights era and the pressure to achieve as a representative for African-Americans. Against his grandfather’s dream of creating a Black dynasty and Cello’s earlier promises of a (ultimately failed) concert piano career, Jed thinks of himself as a walking anti-climax. He calls himself a “Negro Underachiever” in relation to his “difficult, gifted European cousin.”

The novel is a complicated exploration of African diasporic identity with an abundance of documentary source material. Pinckney is highly attuned to the way that colonialism and racism are the lifeblood of Europe’s capitals and its culture.

The second half of the novel concentrates on Jed’s time in a cooperative house and his relationship with a younger Francophone African man. Part of the book’s ambience comes from the characters responding to major historical points of the ’80s: the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Ayatollah Khomeini’s banning of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and the hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73.

Jed is a frustrating and sympathetic protagonist whose expatriate fantasies and complicated relationship with his contemporary moment showcase Pinckney’s social imagination. When Jed is censured by the co-op for failing to participate enough in their hunger strikes against apartheid in South Africa, his aloofness forms counterpoint to the parody of Western hipster leftists’ arrogance.

“Black Deutschland” is a novel intimately in touch with the zeitgeist of its setting and the history leading up to it. Pinckney’s second novelistic endeavor is fun in its charming, fizzling candor and its attempt to understand Jed’s personal experience through the prism of history. 

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“Black Deutschland”

Darryl Pinckney

Feb. 2, 2016

Farrar, Straus and Giroux