I first met Musa while waiting on the Ampelmann somewhere along Warschauer Straße, a vibrant and punkish thoroughfare in the hip Berlin district of Friedrichshain. I was walking to a German class, back when such things were in-person still, before the pandemic robbed us of the autonomy to weave our own stories into the threads of city life, when I heard my named called out from behind me. I have had to practice a controlled reaction to such events: months before, the Berlin Polizei contacted me regarding a threat on my life by a pair of neo-Nazis. I have been recognized in public before, even in Berlin, far away from my provincial American life, where the largest city I’d ever lived in sported a total population of less than 50,000 people.
But Musa called out, and I heard in his voice a warmth (or perhaps it was just the British accent) that gave me leave to react. I didn’t recognize him at first, but we’d been mutuals on Twitter for years. I’m less skilled with faces, less so when one’s profile picture is not a photograph, but as he introduced himself I immediately recognized who he was. Musa had shared similar run-ins as I have with the far-right online. Normally, I see him write about football. But it’s impossible to be a Black man who writes about football without also writing about racism, politics, and white supremacy. It’s not possible to simply set aside the inequalities you see ravaging the things you love most, regardless of whether you are a Black man or a transgender woman. Musa, too, has been punished for his transgressions, namely by making it hard for privileged and powerful folks to ignore that they are on the winning side of an ongoing series of injustices. The lived experience of being targeted by an international far-right movement creates a kinship, a shared trauma of feeling like you’re walking on the very edge of a society about to collapse.
Of course our experiences are different, and I do not mean to compare them. I know nothing of what it is like to be a Black man in a country that still has not reckoned with its colonial legacy. Still there is so much that resonates in Musa’s novel, In the End, it Was All About Love. Fundamentally his story is a biographical love affair with Berlin: Berlin in reflection, Berlin the Moira, Berlin the matchmaker. The book is written in three parts, each formed form a sequence of short segments, some only a paragraph or two long. Okwonga wrote the book to be taken in in small chunks, much like one must find themselves adjusting to the city itself.
Berlin is too vast to understand all at once. A city ravaged by one war and divided in two by another entirely different kind, Berlin has no meaningful downtown area. Instead, its twelve Bezirke are each of their own distinct character; within them, each Kiez stands as a piece of confetti dancing a kaleidoscopic dance. Berlin shows you many sides of itself, sometimes all at once. Okwonga’s narrator on the city’s caprice: “its inhabitants will shock you with acts of rudeness and kindness, often in the course of the same day. For that reason, you might find Berlin addictive. If so, that’s because it’s both too much and not nearly enough. You can saturate yourself in this city, but still find yourself deprived.”
If there is a criticism of In the End, It Was All About Love, it’s that at times it is hard to believe as fiction. The descriptions of city life are instantly recognizable to any newcomer. The impossible labyrinth of German bureaucracy, the brutality of the infinite winters. But it’s the narrator’s story about love and relationships that lands so close to the heart. Berlin may be the best sex city in the world, it’s legendary nightclubs drawing people from across the sea. But at the same time, it might also be the worst dating city in the world. Berlin, as Okwonga describes it, is a moody adolescent. It’s people, too, perhaps are too hip, too aloof. I know of few people in this city looking for partnership, although nearly everyone is looking not to be alone. It’s this temperament that leads to the narrator’s heartbreak. It’s not simply the breakup, it’s the coldness with which it happens. Relationships in Berlin are transactional. They end with the same indifference with which the Bürgeramt will eventually accept one’s Abmeldung.
The devastation of this heartbreak is stacked upon a heartbreak of an entirely different sort. Okwonga’s narrator finds himself the target of the far-right. In Germany, as in most other countries today, there is a resurgent thread of far-right nationalism, which is racist and violent at its core. The narrator finds himself under assault because he is different, namely because he is Black.
Whether by experiencing the casual racism of a pair of young German women at a Bahnhof, or through harassment on social media for the temerity to criticize a football celebrity, Okwonga’s narrator cannot hide the racism of the city underneath his love for the city. And so he seeks therapy to heal his heartbreak: heartbreak from his romantic pains, from the ever-present racism, from having lost his father at a young age to a war in a country his family fled from years ago. Therapy, to find one’s way through the fractal ways in which the world assaults Blackness at every turn.
The narrator finds in this ancestral wisdom-cum-psychiatry a path to an identity. He slowly challenges the concrete and schwarz monotone of Berlin’s fashion by finding himself suits of dashing color; he comes to terms with his own bisexuality; he finds in himself the courage to address the pain of his father’s death years ago. In the end, it was all about love. Berlin, a layered and complex city is a city in which one finds oneself, but only when one is ready to. It is easy to become lost in Berlin. But when you learn how to find yourself in its weave of cruelty and passion, of intimacy and distance, that’s when you can finally understand it, its history, and your place in history.
In the End, It Was All About Love
Buy online or at your local bookstore