I’ve just finished ‘Leaving Berlin’ by Joseph Kanon, a taut thriller set in the ruins of the ravaged city, during the strained and strange atmosphere of the Berlin blockade.
Even though West Berlin was being kept alive by the massive Allied airlift, the infamous Wall had yet to be built, and day to day passage between the different occupied sectors was still relatively straightforward. But even in 1949, the battle lines between the Soviet forces, the nascent East German security service and the CIA, were already being drawn. Behind the efforts of a weary population to preserve, (or maintain the pretence of), normal life, a furious counter-intelligent battle was already in full swing, and in the East, the foundations of a surveillance state were being ruthlessly created.
Into this surreal, shifting city comes Alex Maier, a German Jewish writer expelled from the US by the McCarthy committees and invited by the Soviet authorities to settle back home after fleeing the tyrannies of Nazism.
But Alex has a secret. He is desperate to return to America to be with his son, Peter, and so he cuts a deal with the CIA. He will pass information back to the US intelligence services in order to secure a ‘pardon’ and an opportunity to return home to be reunited with Peter.
But these plans go catastrophically and fatally wrong when he is almost unmasked on his very first day back in East Berlin. As a consequence, instead of passing relatively safe and mundane details about the artistic intelligentsia, he is forced to be the protagonist in a classic political game of cat and mouse. Both sides attempt to play him against the other, whilst old loyalties of family, friendship and lost love threaten his survival. How can he possibly return safely to the US and to his son?
I enjoyed ‘Leaving Berlin’, partly because its plot moves at a cracking rate and partly because I am familiar with Berlin. The author does a very good job of recreating places and spaces that I remember and it was enjoyable to spend time back in the city during a different, often overlooked era, when the tensions of Cold War had yet to freeze into unmitigated and open hostility.
Kanon is a very concise writer whose style rarely indulges elaborate metaphor or illustration; he has a journalistic eye for documenting location and events. But he is excellent at conveying the natural beats of conversation and the gaps between what is said and what is meant. Already in 1949, your safety and survival could depend on your ability to decode these hidden meanings and menaces, the difference between patronage and favour and a trip to Sachsenhausen, which was re-purposed after the war for correcting or purging viewpoints that were antagonistic to the Communist Party.
If I had one criticism of the novel, it would be that Alex’s plans come together almost a little too perfectly. Although the story moves along at pace, there isn’t enough genuine danger to really set the pulse racing and Alex’s progress is a little too unchallenged. Considering he is an espionage ingenue, readers may expect a greater sense of drama and possibly some losses along the way. Instead, Alex emerges with barely a scratch, all loose ends neatly tied off. I think the Soviet characters could have been made far more menacing and the East German secret policeman, the brother of Alex’s former friend, resembles a bookish civil servant rather than the hawkish, omniscient threat one might expect. Maybe this is part of the author’s intent: to show that far from being blessed with the supernatural divination often attributed to them in the classic intelligence thrillers, spies and their masters are actually groping and guessing towards the truth.
The trick is to stay one step ahead, a feat the author manages, more or less, to the end of this highly enjoyable story.