July 10, 2020

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Berlin buried in secrets in postwar thriller

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/3/2015 (1931 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Another war was brewing even before the hostilities of the Second World War ended, one that claimed souls and lives as NATO and the Soviet bloc jostled for world domination. Each side cynically justified their abuses and crimes in the name of the freedoms they espoused.

But there were people who lived by their principles. It's the conundrum that entangles the characters and engages the reader in American author Joseph Kanon's latest spy thriller, a fast-paced tour through East Berlin in 1949. It's a glimpse of the "other" side, comparable to the intrigues George Smiley juggles in John Le Carré's British MI5.

Alex Meier is a German writer who spent the war in the U.S., where he achieved fame and started a family. But the House Un-American Activities Committee has begun its witch-hunt against Communists and supposed subversives. Meier, like the real-life Bertolt Brecht, refuses to name names and leaves comfortable California for Berlin, still a mountain of rubble four years after Hitler was defeated -- a divided city at the centre of hegemony.

Meier receives a hero's welcome from returned exiles hoping to build a better world without oppression, a world of equality. He also meets those who stayed behind, one of whom is the only woman he ever really loved.

But not all is glorious in the new socialist republic. The victorious Soviets view the fledgling German administrators as Nazis or American agents. Everyone guards a secret while trying to dig up nuggets of information that could buy a favour, a promotion or a reprieve. Kanon fills tense conversations with pregnant pauses, meaningful looks and cigarette smoke. More is said between the surrealistic half-sentences than in the few words spoken.

Alex's secret is that the U.S. is willing to let him go back so he can keep a relationship with his son, the hefty price being intelligence work against the Soviets. Alex is an amateur, but within moments of his arrival, the bodies begin to pile up. The nerdy novelist proves to be a canny operative, uncovering classified information and somehow avoiding being taken in for a round of friendly questions by the Soviets.

That's the only quibble -- Alex's savvy and skill in such a short time seems a little implausible. But otherwise this is a deftly constructed and mesmerizing tale about the choices people make to survive and the costs of those choices. Alex and the others are traumatized over the turn of events, over where they belong, over whether principles can triumph over pragmatism. Brecht, whose Mother Courage and other epic plays revolutionized theatre and terrified the U.S. Congress, becomes an anachronism. "He thinks it's like before. You know what he says? You see those people looking at us? They know it's me."

Berlin's skyline is an important vista above the ruins, a reminder of the difficulties people faced as the ideological battle waged, all eyes waiting for food drops to breach the Berlin blockade, another element factoring into the uncertain situation.

This is the seventh spy story from Kanon, the former president of Houghton Mifflin and E.P. Dutton publishing houses. The Good German, which became a movie in 2006 starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett, was also set in Berlin. His other venues include Hollywood, Venice and Istanbul, all of them taking place between the Second World War and 1950.

The U.S. fuelled unrest that toppled the pro-Russian Ukrainian government in 2014. Vladimir Putin, looking to assert Russia's control, replied by annexing Crimea and arming militias in eastern Ukraine. The conflict continues, with much destruction and many civilian deaths.

Given the geopolitics at play, Kanon may have fodder for future skullduggery.


Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.


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