It’s a strange thing and one that’s most likely a result of the level of History taught in school during my education but great swathes of modern, post-war European history remained a mystery to me until very recently.
For entirely personal reasons I’m learning increasingly more about the history of Eastern Europe and what happened behind The Wall, as it were (on that note I sincerely recommend Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire) and am continually fascinated by what I discover.
One hole in my knowledge, though, is the period between the end of the Second World War and the formation of those two distinct countries that I grew up aware of: East Germany and West Germany. It may be down to education but then there’s also the fact that so little was allowed to be known about what happened in certain countries behind the Iron Curtain but there was, at least, an awareness of two distinct halves of Europe and, in particular, Berlin.
I’m oddly fascinated, for example, how the West managed to retain its ‘half’ of a capital city so deep in the Eastern ‘half’ of the country and the logistics therein.
There’s the fact that Berlin was on the receiving end of a very large battering from all members of the Allies in the closing stages of the war. There’s the period when it was divided in two like the rest of Germany and half fell under the GDR while the other ‘the west’. But there’s a knowledge hole that exists around that in between period; the time when a city was on its knees, its citizens still reeling from the destruction and the two opposing factions were still carving it up.
Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon goes a long way to both illuminating that period and creating an itch for more. It’s also one of those happy instances in Waterstones where you need another book to take advantage of the “Buy One Get One Half Price” deal and it the book you grab out of curiosity rather than having sought it out turns out to be a brilliant whim.
Set in 1949 Leaving Berlin finds writer Alex Meier returning to Berlin from America where he’d fled the Nazis in 1934. The official line is that – as a treasured author – he’s been invited to return by the Soviet authorities to help establish cultural future of the Socialist country. In fact he’s returned only to allow him to return to America. Persecuted for his communist beliefs during the McCarthy witch-hunts, he’s made a deal with the young CIA; return to East Berlin and act as their agent in order that he might return a patriot and be reunited with his son.
Except, of course, it all goes a bit tits-up for him from the off when his CIA contact is killed and he finds himself in a deadly game of espionage and counter espionage.
The dialogue, particularly, is great but the pacing and twists of the plot are fantastic. What stands out for me, though, is how much more compelling it becomes as a result of its setting. With the war and its events still in people’s memories normality is a distant concept and so what people did during and just what they’ll do to survive after is a huge factor. Just as the lines between the city are in a state of confusion, so too the lines between who to trust. There’s a strange sense of surrealism throughout as a new normality attempts to establish itself yet is still surrounded and hindered by the physical (large swathes of the city remain piles of rubble, there’s power outages) and psychological aftermath of the war that mirrors that of Alex upon his return to such a city after living in California, out of the way of the destruction.
I’ve not read anything by Joseph Kanon before but I’ll certainly be on the lookout to do so on the basis of this. It’s also time to find what I can to plug this hole in knowledge too.