– Interview by Molly
Joseph Kanon has been writing spy novels for quite some time, focusing on the murky politics of immediate post-war Berlin as the starting point for much of his work. Last month, I profiled Joseph Kanon’s latest spy novel, Leaving Berlin, as an atmospheric triumph, with impeccable plotting, deep research, and a measured pace that accelerates to frenetic by the end of the novel. Mr. Kanon was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the novel.
Molly O: Your main character faces persecution for being Jewish in Nazi Germany, and as a Communist in McCarthy-era USA. His character seems to epitomize the vulnerability of stateless peoples, before and after WWII. He is in between countries, just like the private detective in a PI novel is between criminals and cops. What drew you to such a character?
Joseph Kanon: I needed a protagonist who would be above suspicion to the Soviet occupation authorities and someone who had defied HUAC would certainly have filled that bill in the late ’40s. In a sense, his principled defiance of the committee becomes a perfect ‘cover’. His being half-Jewish was important in explaining his reluctance to return to Berlin (his parents have been murdered in the Holocaust) but also helps to explain his feeling of being, at least partly, an outsider, someone looking, wary about committing to either side. And of course it’s also part of the reason he’s so taken with the von Bernuth family– he’s not just in love with Irene, but with their heedless self-confidence, their absolute certainty about their place in society.
MO: Postwar Berlin is such a perfect setting for shifting alliances and evolving identities, and many of your books are set in the immediate post-war period. What draws you to this setting, this time period?
JK: I think it was the hinge of the last century, a point of real transformation– there was before the war and then there was after and this ‘after’ world, in all its gray areas of moral ambiguity, is the one we inherited. Events such as the invention (and use) of the atomic bomb, the revelation of the Holocaust, changed things forever. It is therefore an inherently dramatic period, and one not as explored in fiction as some others (always appealing to a writer)– ordinary people are making decisions that will affect how we live for the next 50 years or so. I’m interested in the effect of history on people and this was a period when everybody was affected, whether he wished to be or not.
MO: You do a wonderful job of distinguishing an intellectual’s vision of communism from the warped mentality of the Soviet state. With communism-bashing an ever-present temptation, what made you decide to demonstrate radicalism’s philosophical appeal?
JK: I was interested in how the GDR (East Germany) came to be. Most people here think of it as an inevitability, another Soviet client state like Poland or Hungary, but the GDR was a political anomaly, an improvised state. How the Cold War split Germany in two is a complicated story, but it could not have happened without the support (or at least acquiescence) of the German Communists and their sympathizers. These were people who believed they had survived Hitler and fascism (whose first targeted victims they had been) and now had a responsibility to bring into being the Germany they had once envisioned and lost, a socialist state. To write about this period without acknowledging the political idealism on the left (however betrayed and misguided it later became) would be to miss the engine driving the ideological split.
MO: Leaving Berlin explores the relationship between pretense and art and pretense and politics throughout. What inspired you to set a Cold War thriller in a cultural milieu?
JK: Well, it was the Russians themselves who made culture a weapon in the ideological cold war. It was they who actively lured German emigre artists back home. I was fascinated by these returning writers (and other artists) whose position became so hopelessly compromised. Tired of all the wasting years abroad, eager to work again in their own language, their own culture, they come to help build a socialist paradise and end up helping to build their own prison.
MO: I loved the fallen Junker family, still haughty in their bombed-out house. Where did you get the idea for the aristocratic characters and their roles?
JK: I wanted a family whose wartime experiences were varied by who nevertheless were all permanently damaged by it. I chose a Junker family to suggest that not even privileged Germans escaped. So this family that Alex had once thought so golden now has experienced Nazi collaboration, war crimes, the death of children, the loss of all moral compasses as they cope with the overwhelming horror of the war (including those who helped perpetuate it).
MO: Clearly, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have access to much more information than before about life under the Soviet state. Can you tell me a little bit about your research methods, and if you drew on sources that would have been unavailable prior to the 1990s?
JK: Yes, very much so. After 1989 came a tsunami of archival material and new information. It took a few years for scholars to sort this out (and translate it- my German is very rudimentary) but the books indeed followed and they offer us a rich, detailed account of how Berlin (and Germany) broke apart and what the occupation was like in each zone. I rely heavily on print sources, especially things written at the time (letters, journals, etc.), but I’m also a great believer in getting to know one’s setting, walking the city. Of course this also provided a great excuse for me to go back to Berlin and spend time there (it’s a city that, obviously, fascinates me). So many things are now open to us which were closed or difficult to access years ago– Stasi headquarters, residential neighborhoods in the East, etc. I can spend days just walking in Berlin. What I see may not always appear in the book, but I think if you know a place well, you can ‘see’ it in your mind’s eye when you write, just as the character would be seeing it.
You can find copies of Leaving Berlin on our shelves and via bookpeople.com, as well as copies of Joseph Kanon’s many works. Look out for more espionage-oriented interviews and reviews!