Leaving Berlin, by Joseph Kanon

by Robert A. Parker

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)

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