BERLIN — “Berlin ist eine Reise wert” – that’s a saying every German knows and few would disagree with; yes, it is always worth it to take a trip to Berlin. I realized this once again last week when I went for a few days, just to visit friends I hadn’t seen for a long time. Among them, Bea Ehlers-Kerbekian, an Armenian actress and teacher who invited me to join her at the Academy of Arts, in the beautiful Pariser Platz, to attend a book reading on August 29.
It was the premiere of the novel, Hier sind Löwen (There are Lions Here) by Katerina Poladjan, who was born in Moscow and has lived in Germany since 1979. She has already published two novels and has earned an impressive array of scholarships and grants, as well as literary awards. Her new book, published by S. Fischer, is on the long list for the 2019 German Book Prize. This event was to kick off a series of 15 presentations going into the autumn and including some at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October.
The hall filled up rapidly, a good number of attendants were Armenians. The well-known literary critic Meike Fessman moderated the event, which unfolded in the form of a lively dialogue with the author. Poladjan read sections of her novel with dramatic force and humor, bringing her characters alive as if they were on stage. Saxophonist Angelika Niescier provided a powerful musical counterpart, accompanying the literary dialogue from beginning to end with contemporary Armenian music.
We learned that the novel deals with one Helen Mazavian, a young woman who leaves Germany for Yerevan, where she will work as a book restorer at the Matenadaran. She is eager to learn about new restoration techniques there and, through her work on an old Bible, she ends up discovering far more.
The Bible was what two children, Hrant and Anahid, had taken with them in 1915 when they fled the Genocide. There are handwritten phrases on the pages, including a cryptic note mentioning Hrant, something to the effect that he will not wake up. Poladjan read passages describing the flight of the children, as well as Helen’s arrival in Yerevan, her work on the restoration, and episodes in a love relationship.
The author explained that Armenian bibles are often very small, some of them have a clasp, and have a very personal character. Families would inscribe their names, and place personal items, letters, tickets, photographs, inside. For Heike Fessman, this seemed to be an encounter of the sacred and the profane. Poladjan spoke of “memory writing,” and how the Bible was considered almost a member of the family.