Leaving Berlin, by Joseph Kanon

This is a marvelous espionage novel from 2015. It is set in Berlin in 1949 during the historic Air Lift, and it richly evokes that bombed city and its survivors, along with an atmosphere in which every encounter, with both friends and strangers, raises suspicion. The novel also works because of the moral issues that these characters face, as they struggle to survive in their world of conflicting political interests. Who is truly loyal to the Americans, to their German friends, to the East German regime, and to the Russians? It is not easy to answer when one’s own survival often depends on deceiving others.

The intrigue begins for the reader when the novel’s main character Alex Meier, a promising Jewish writer who once fled Hitler, goes back as a spy to Berlin, where he grew up. The CIA has agreed to erase his leftist ties in America if he pretends to support the new East German government. Just as Anna Seghers and Bertolt Brecht, who also appear in the novel, actually did. To earn his clean slate, Alex must befriend a former lover, Irene, who is sleeping with a high-ranking Russian, and from her learn more about Russian strategy for East Germany. Meanwhile, the East Germans, to whom he is pretending loyalty, also recruit Alex to befriend the same woman and inform them as well about Russian strategy. He thus becomes a new version of a double agent. And these conflicting objectives will soon lead him to facing such choices as silence, betrayal, and murder.

Indeed, our hero Alex learns quickly that the loyalties of those he meets are going be difficult to determine; and this begins with his first rendezvous, which results in a shootout, a death, and accusations of betrayal against a man he thought was a friendly American contact. From there, Alex begins his supposed mission at an East Berlin cultural center, where other Germans such as Brecht have returned to promote the culture of the new East German regime. But even there he discovers divided loyalties—among those who believe in themselves first (like Brecht) or in German culture, those supporting the new East German political state, and those mainly fearful of the Russian occupiers. And some of these empathize with Alex, but do not trust him. Thus, the motives of every character become more and more hidden and more and more diverse.

The end result is a plot line that twists and turns, as Alex tries to satisfy all his contacts, not betray himself, retain the love of Irene, and serve both the Germans’ and the Americans’ needs. It is an almost impossible task. It also continually raises moral issues about loyalty, both personal and political, and how much the end justifies the means. And so Alex is trapped amid moral and political quandaries. One of his major issues is trust. Who can he trust? For he is attempting to avoid suspicion for killing an important Russian. He is trying to help two friends flee to the West: Irene and her brother Erich, who has just escaped from a slave labor camp at a Soviet uranium mine. He is also seeking to thwart attempts to murder him. And he is trying to figure out who in the CIA has betrayed him.

This uncertainty of life in Berlin in 1949 is mirrored in both the rubble and the people. As Jake Kerridge in The Telegraph describes the Berlin atmosphere: “What makes this novel stand out is its portrayal of an East Berlin literally and psychologically gutted.”

In addition, Philip K. Jason in the Washington Independent Review of Books, extends this portrayal to the author’s style. He cites “carefully crafted dialogue [that] conveys enormous amounts of information, [which] feel incomplete. Do you ever walk into a situation in which everyone knows what’s going on except you? It’s something like that. Every word and sentence is crystal clear, yet the context and import remain undefined. This… is a stylistic device shaped to express uncertainty—what living in Berlin at this time feels like. Readers feel the overwhelming pressure of facts that don’t mesh.”

The result of this blend of moral complexity and political uncertainty is an action-filled finale in which an amateur spy like Alex unexpectedly becomes highly professional and creates an elaborate double-dealing plan that is difficult to follow, and yet manages to bring his situation and this novel to a conclusion. It also produces a series of surprises, primarily two unexpected reversals of loyalties, that are more to marvel at for their creativity than to accept for their believability.

Moreover, his plan also appears to enmesh Alex in a world he has been trying to escape, the implication being that his success in fulfilling his mission may well draw him more deeply into a world of espionage he wishes to avoid. This is symbolized by an American wife who has achieved the release of her East German husband by offering his captors what she considers tidbits of unimportant information. Which reverberates on a more significant level when Irene herself reveals she had offered what she considers minor information about Alex to her Russian lover.

This is one of Kanon’s best works. It is truly a thriller, not a literary work, but at its heart it explores moral and ethical issues that have always interested me. When, in other words, can you accept your hero killing another human being? Out of self-preservation, yes, but in cold blood? When can one lie, even to one’s friends, to serve a greater good, or in order to turn one’s enemies against each other? And when can love be used to serve political reasons?

Unlike recent Le Carre novels, the rationale here seems to be not to justify what is right but to address what works. What is practical, not what is moral or ethical. The result is a fast-moving work, which espionage novels should be, but not a novel with emotional depth. Its characters live too much in their political and intellectual worlds. They are too intent on self-preservation. What this novel does have, however, is moral richness, both from its setting and from the complex motivations and loyalties of its characters. (July, 2017)

A Delicate Truth, by John Le Carre

This is a beautifully constructed novel from 2013. It reflects once again, the author’s distrust of His Majesty’s government, especially its Foreign Office and its espionage and security services. In a way, this work’s conclusion offers a career bookend to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold of 50 years earlier.

Ironically, the structure I so admire here reflects a structure I usually dislike, a structure which bounces the reader among different time frames and different characters. Thus, this novel begins with a botched operation, called Operation Wildlife, on Gibraltar, in which British and American clandestine services join forces to kidnap an arms buyer for terrorists. My acceptance of this structure begins, I believe, with both the reader and the main characters being curious about who initiated this operation and why, what really happened, and how and why the botched outcome was concealed—and continues as Le Carre jumps back and forth and both the reader and the main characters learn the answers at the same time. In fact, it becomes even more of an obsession for those characters when they learn that an innocent woman and her child were killed in the operation, and their deaths were covered up.

The primary men involved are Toby Bell, an idealistic private secretary who suspects his foreign minister boss, Fergus Quinn, of something fishy; Kit Probyn, a middle-aged civil servant who has been rewarded with a knighthood for his role in the “successful” mission, but who Quinn chose to oversee the operation because Probyn seemed too innocent to understand what would be going on; and Jeb, the British commander at Gibraltar, who knows what really happened, knows about the two deaths the operation caused, and is haunted by guilt feelings.

Other participants are; Giles Oakley, Bell’s mentor who advises him not to speak truth to power; Jay Crispin, a shady British operative who was in charge of Wildlife; Fergus Quinn, Bell’s ambitious and secretive boss who sponsors the collaborative project with the Americans; Elliot, the operation’s field commander; and the mysterious Miss Maisie, an American whose wealth funds private defense contractors. With these last four, indeed, the espionage world, in Le Carre’s mind, has truly gone corporate.

The point of the novel is not Operation Wildlife itself; it is the investigation by three men, Kit Probyn, Toby Bell, and Jeb, of what actually happened on Gibraltar. It is their pursuit of the truth driving the story. For the cover-up, in Le Carre’s eyes, is the real crime here, more than the bungled operation itself. Indeed, this portrait of cynical governmental corruption before and after the fact also reflects the author’s response to the end of traditional espionage. He has turned his attention to exposing the corruption that has infected governmental and private agencies as they join forces to profit from combating new foreign adversaries

In the words of James Srodes, writing in The Washington Times, “The plotline of this story is as fresh as today’s headlines about overreaching spy agencies, the private contractors who serve those agencies, and what happens to whistleblowers who try to reveal just who it is behind the curtain twiddling the dials.” And as Sarah Churchwell sums up in the New Statesman, “Faced with a secret state relying on plausible deniability and the subcontracting of its dirty work, Toby and Kit must search for a way to hold power accountable.”

Some critics have disliked this novel. I would speculate it is because they enjoyed too much the former skullduggery and successes of the British espionage services, combined with Le Carre also exploring the moral quandaries raised by certain dark operations. I suspect that what those critics wanted/expected here was more suspenseful action in typical espionage fashion. But the whole point here is the cover-up—and the step-by-step process by which it is exposed. And, in fact, there are still neat moments of suspense at the climax, when Bell does attempt to speak truth to power.

No, this novel belongs to a type that, as Mark Lawson explains in the Guardian, “no other writer has charted—pitilessly for politicians but thrillingly for readers—the public and secret histories of his times, from the second world war to the ‘war on terror.’” In other words, Le Carre is interested in the truth of war, especially when it is a “delicate truth,” because certain actions raise questions no one in power wishes to answer.

This issue is also what Olen Steinhauer raises in the Times Book Review, that by the end of this novel “either you share [Le Carre’s] anger at the injustices between its covers, or you don’t.” And if you don’t, “you’re one of Smiley’s” people, one who accepts the sacrifice of innocents in hot or cold wars. Whereas, this post cold-war era offers another perspective. And Le Carre has switched his concern here to considering the value of the innocents.

Le Carre has published this work at the age of 81. One wonders how many such works he has left in him. I would hope the answer is many. He has written that he does not want to end his career as did Graham Greene, writing short, less consequential work. In this novel, the author shows he still has control of both story and structure. What he does not retain, however, is a sense of the moral quandary that lied behind certain espionage successes of a generation ago. That era is long gone, and Le Carre himself has changed with it. He has become more opinionated, and has recognized that the secret world he once belonged to has become more commercial, more selfish, and more corrupt.

Perhaps a long career of writing about the shadows in the world of espionage, as well as long years thinking about how the world, how humanity, operates, has started Le Carre thinking more deeply about the exercise of power, the foibles of human nature, and the accountability that is so often absent. And at the end of his career he is recognizing that the thinking of his former world of shadows no longer applies. That humans are no longer living up to that world of idealism that we have long purported to believe in. And he now wishes to stress, at the end of his own life, how we humans actually operate today, how we have turned inward, toward valuing and defending means rather than ends. (July, 2017)

The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michael Faber

This 2002 work is a rich and brazen recreation of a novel of the 19th century. It begins beautifully, with the author addressing the reader and guiding him through the introduction of the main characters. Unfortunately, they are not sympathetic characters, and as the work progresses one becomes less interested in their individual fates, and more in the details of the world the author has created and the adventures his characters have. The focus is on the Rackham family, especially, but also their friends and servants, and other members of society. In sum, the reader explores a distant world that offers rich and poor both permissions and limitations.

The main characters are Sugar, an unattractively thin but smart prostitute; William Rackham, the dissolute son of a wealthy manufacturer, who is fascinated by her; Agnes, William’s sickly wife; Sophie, William’s young and innocent child; and Henry Rackham, William’s brother, a dedicated but unworldly parson. The problem for me is that the two main characters, Sugar and William, are both selfish, using each other for their own pleasure, and intent on advancing their status in society. As a result, it was impossible for me to identify with them, even though I was caught up by their efforts to take advantage of personal, business, and social relationships.

The author sustains our interest in this long novel by creating provocative adventures that explore the complexity of Victorian society. He also understands the literary value of a character reversal, and the interest it creates. In Sugar’s case, she gradually loses a hatred of men that has been fostered by her service as a prostitute. Instead, she absorbs an awareness of love, first through her relationship with William, but even more through serving as governess and teacher of his daughter Sophie. Indeed, at the end she seems dedicated more to the life of Sophie than to her own life.

Further richness is added when this intelligent woman abandons a cruel novel about prostitution, and becomes enthralled by a diary and journal that Agnes has been keeping. Sugar devours it to learn about both the Agnes of whom she is jealous and the details of Agnes’ relationship with her husband.

As a sidelight, one of the primary characteristics of Agnes is that she was raised a Catholic and wishes to return to that faith. Her efforts are presented sympathetically, but one speculates that her religion is introduced primarily to express her long repression of herself as a sexual being.

William’s reversal, on the other hand, represents a change from an undisciplined, pleasure-seeking dandy to being the effective manager of his father’s perfume business—albeit that he also relies at times on the sage advice of Sugar. Indeed, he seems to be putty in her hands—until nature intervenes, and another reversal occurs.

The story itself can be briefly told. Sugar begins as a successful prostitute with higher ambitions. She is drafting a novel in which she gets revenge on her clients by killing them; meanwhile, she suffers from a skin disease that seems to symbolize the corruption within her. William, on the other hand, endures life with half-mad Agnes, a child wife who understands neither her own body nor the functioning of sex; and so he seeks release with Sugar, but also, unexpectedly, finds companionship with her. He first puts her up in a private hide-away, and then brings her into his home as a governess for daughter Sophie. Whereupon, their relationship fluctuates back and forth on a physical, psychological, and emotional pendulum. But nothing significant happens until Sugar discovers herself to be pregnant.

Meanwhile, peripheral characters, such as brother Henry and his girl friend Emmeline Fox, who works to help prostitutes, move in and out of their lives, as do William’s servants and his dissolute friends Bodley and Ashwell.

And yet, despite all the intriguing adventures and literary craftsmanship, after taking us through 900 pages of a family saga that resembles a 19th century soap opera, the author fails to bring his novel to a conclusive ending. This is perhaps a very 21st century approach (as is the often graphic references to Victorian sex), but it is far from the 19th century literature he is recreating. In other words, Faber has decided, in the modern spirit, that it is unnecessary to convey the fate of his major characters. This covers Sugar, Sophie, Agnes, William, and Henry. And so, despite the richness of the telling, along with my inability to identify with these characters, I sense a hollowness at the core of this novel.

Charles Taylor has an interesting take in Salon on the reason for this hollowness. He writes that Faber’s opening pages, which we both admire, and his later addressing of the reader, keep those readers at a distance from his characters, keep them at arm’s length as observers, and prevent them from getting inside the skin of his characters. And, thus, by his own intrusions, Faber reminds us that he is controlling the actions of these characters rather than it being they who are making their own decisions.

Taylor sums up his review by saying Faber’s novel is “damnably irritating” but “never less than compelling.” That it has “divided my sympathies,” engaging him on a narrative level even as “the story does not conclude but simply stops.” He calls the novel “a compelling perversity: a long, detailed Victorian novel from someone who doesn’t appear to like Victorian novels.”

Like Taylor, I, too, was caught up by the characters’ adventures, impressed by the Victorian detail, felt myself involved in its world, and yet was frustrated by the distancing. Faber seems, in retrospect, to be an author who is too ambitious, too risk-taking for his own good. And yet that may well be why he is held in such high regard by many critics. All in all, I am in favor of risk-taking, but more when it expands the reader’s vision, and less when, as here, it limits the reader’s vision. Or when, as here, the author’s objective overrides the story’s objective. (July, 2017)