–Post by Molly
I’ve always been a fan of spy fiction, since I discovered John le Carré, Alan Furst, Philip Kerr, and of course, the great Graham Greene. At its silliest, spy fiction is a collection of gadgets, gizmos, guns and girls (in that order). At its greatest, such as in The Spy Who Came in From The Cold, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, spy fiction becomes a moral minefield; treacherous, duplicitous, paranoid, and thrilling. Agents lurk behind every corner, no one is who they seem, and each stab at connection, empathy and affection is brutally punished by manipulative handlers and their far-away, jingoistic bosses. Berlin, as the secret agent center of the Cold War for nearly a half century, stands out as a setting for spy fiction, and Joseph Kanon, with his latest novel, Leaving Berlin, uses the city just as well as Le Carré. No wonder – Kanon has already made Cold War Berlin his own in such novels as The Good German, and Leaving Berlin is no exception.
Leaving Berlin starts with a perfect set-up. In 1949, Alex Meier a German-Jewish writer with a Dutch passport and a communist past, refuses to testify at the House of Un-American Activities Committee and is promptly deported from the United States. He receives an invitation to move back to Berlin, a city he has not seen since 1933, and join the community of returning Communist exiles, including Bertolt Brecht, determined to help build a new Germany.
Meier, however, does not plan to stay in Germany long – he’s received a promise that, should he provide enough information on his new friends to the CIA, he will be allowed to return to the United States, where his ex-wife and son still reside. The CIA recruits Meier as an agent partially because Meier’s family is dead, and thus they think he has no connections in his former home. Meier proves his handlers wrong, and immediately goes on a quest to find the Junker family who provided him with the funds and opportunity to escape the Nazis after a brief turn in a concentration camp. He finds some of them, including his old flame, still alive, and he decides to help those he can to escape to the west as well.
With such a great setup, its hard to believe that the book could possibly have an equally amazing conclusion. And yet Leaving Berlin ends with one of the best resolutions I have ever read in a spy novel – everyone receives their comeuppances, but not before several double agents, even more murders, a hint of romance, and a thrilling chase sequence during a production of Brecht’s prescient anti-war drama Mother Courage.
Kanon chocks his novel full of historical details. The characters are a veritable who’s-who of East German intellectuals, and the city is described so well as to be almost the protagonist of the novel – in fact, the city, with its ever-shifting sectors and alliances and ever-present construction crews, changes throughout the novel more than any other character. Leaving Berlin, had it been written in 1949, would not have been published, for the censorship at the time on both the Soviet and American sides was far to strict for discussion of certain topics. Kanon’s characters explicitly discuss the mass rape of German women by Soviet soldiers at the end of WWII (encompassing over two million victims and two distinct stages, the first in East Prussia and the second in Berlin). Similarly, characters discuss purges, one-way trips to Siberia, and Stalinist oppression more openly than was possible at the time. Leaving Berlin does, however, read like a novel written in 1949 and hidden in a desk drawer for a day when it could be published, and this is the highest praise I can give to any American writing about the Soviet era.
You can find copies of Leaving Berlin on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. For those spy fiction aficionados who may be reading this post, we are relaunching our MysteryPeople Double Feature film series at the end of April. Join us May 10 at 6:30 PM on BookPeople’s third floor for a screening of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, followed by a discussion of the book and film. All BookPeople events are free and open to the public.