Like many millennials and men of his generation, the fictionalized Max Krumm lingers through life, simultaneously uneasy and comfortable in his indecisiveness.
Berlin provides the perfect backdrop for his existential angst. It’s a city filled with disquieting memories of his Jewish ancestors who came before him. But it also offers the American expat a recluse from reality, as he spends his days picking up the odd writing assignment and kvetching with his Kumpeln (buddies).
“The Prenzlauer Berg man has thrown away his sword and all of the edges it implies,” writes author Michael Levitin, who penned the Disposable Man lightly based on his own time living in the Kiez from 2004 to 2009. “He lives with comfort and predictability now; he lives a life that is handed to him rather than one he formerly imagined he might seize.”
Levitin’s recently released Bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel) might be a compact 181-pages, but it tackles hearty subjects such as reclaiming one’s manhood, what it means to be Jewish in modern-day Germany and the ever-existential search for meaning.
Rykestraße, one of Prenzlauer Berg's main streets. Photo: DPA
'More than just another tribute to the past'
These themes are intensified through interwoven stories of Krumm’s family spanning over a hundred heavy years – including several true tales which were recounted to Levitin by family members.
“I was inspired to write this book because of all of the stories I heard growing up,” journalist-turned-author Levitin, 43, told The Local. “But it really took living in Berlin and [finding] something contemporary as a way to anchor this as more than just another tribute to a person’s past.”
The surprising story which centres the book is a true one: from a Siberian work camp, Krumm's great-aunt sends a postcard to Einstein, simply addressed “Albert Einstein, USA”, with a request for new boots to stay warm. To her astonishment, it is honoured.
The other historical stories in the book speak to barely surviving against the odds – and provide an even more impactful contrast to Krumm’s dallying daily life. His grandmother would have never left Berlin had the Nazis not forced her out. Yet Krumm can’t seem to leave, even when he wants to.
“For people who are wondering where their place of landing is going to be, [Berlin] is not a place that forces that decision,” said Levitin, who now calls California home with his wife and young daughter.
Krumm hits his lowest point after his German wife leaves him for a lover and feeling, well, disposable. The bitterly cold months during winter in a crumbling Altbau apartment only magnify his misery, which he downs in drinks with a group of other meandering expat men.
Prenzlauer Berg's Schwartz Pumpe, one of Krumm and co's favourite hangouts. Photo: Rachel Stern
'Berlin has strong significance'
Yet it’s the presence of history – specifically finding a family keepsake – which catapults Krumm out of casual indifference. He follows the footsteps of his predecessors in present-day Poland and ultimately Lithuania, piecing together the past in a powerful stream-of-consciousness ending.
Krumm’s final trip “was a metaphor for taking the next step forward, about the end of youth, about how you cannot sustain and go on forever in this kind of limbo,” said Levitin.
That’s where the past and present connect, with Berlin having brought back people of Jewish heritage who are simultaneously drawn to – and disgusted by – the city’s history. For Levitin, the capital continues to carry an especially strong significance.
“In a way all of our families can say they are connected to Berlin in the sense that it forced the diaspora. Berlin’s activities created modern Jewry.”
We see the strongest example of this in flashback, as a teenager Krumm asks his elderly grandfather Abram if he’s scared of death. He replies that “Death is not a period, it’s just a comma.”
Only due to living in Berlin – and letting himself leave it – does Krumm really understand what he meant.
Levitin will present and read from Disposable Man on Thursday, June 6th at 8:30 p.m. at Berlin's Z-Bar.
This article was updated on June 4.