Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 358
After the narrator, the unnamed listener—the narrator’s regular drinking partner—is the most important character in ‘‘A Guide to Berlin.’’ The narrator introduces him in the story’s first sentence as his friend, and it is to him that he narrates the odd guide to Berlin that comprises the bulk of the story. Although he is deemed ‘‘the listener,’’ he, ironically, is the only character who speaks in the story. When the reader first hears him in the story’s last section, he is scornfully rejecting the narrator’s guide and complains that the city it purports to describe is, in any event, ‘‘boring,’’ ‘‘foreign,’’ and ‘‘expensive.’’ One view of the listener’s role in the story is that he represents the blinkered, unimaginative, ordinary world, trapped in its own present and unable to see the glimpses of the future that sustain the narrator’s spirit.
The unnamed narrator is the central figure in the story. His descriptions of the things he encounters during a morning’s tram ride to the Berlin Zoo is the reader’s only source of information about the city and its people. Although the narrator discloses little about himself, it appears that, like Nabokov, he is a writer who once lived in St. Petersburg, Russia. Because of his apparent distaste for Russian communists (‘‘topical utopias and other inanities’’), the reader may infer that the narrator is also a Russian emigre living, as many of Nabokov’s exiled countrymen did, in Berlin’s Russian district south of the Berlin Zoo.
Unlike Nabokov, however, the narrator appears to have been terribly disfigured by war or some other tragic incident. The reader learns, for example, that he carries a ‘‘rubber heeled’’ walking stick; that women sympathetically give up their window seats for him when he boards streetcars, though they avoid looking at him; and that the child who regards him in the bar at the end of the story sees an ‘‘empty right sleeve and scarred face.’’ Throughout the story, the narrator is quietly attentive, reflective, and sympathetic towards the world around him, and is acutely conscious of the passage of time.
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