THE WALL STEET JOURNAL
February 27, 2015
MYSTERIES: POSTWAR NOIR
An espionage thriller about an exiled German writer returning to rubble-strewn Berlin.
By Tom Nolan
A divided, blockaded, rubble-strewn city, in January 1949, is the semi-surrealistic setting of Joseph Kanon’s thought-provoking, pulse-pounding espionage thriller, “Leaving Berlin” (Atria, 371 pages, $27). Beyond the “jagged graveyard streets of the newsreels,” the formally attired staff at the once-grand Adlon Hotel still greets guests in the traditional manner. As U.S. planes roar overhead, airlifting supplies to civilians, a makeshift café sets up shop in a bomb site. While occupying Communists suspend rights in the Russian zone, native Socialists rationalize: “Nobody ever said it would be easy…A just society must be worth a few sacrifices, no?”
Into this semi-deluded colony comes Alex Meier, a Jewish ex-Berliner writer whose Book-of-the-Month-Club novel earned him World War II exile in Hollywood: “Warners bought it for Cagney, then Raft, then George Brent, then the war came and they wanted battle pictures, not prison-camp escapes…But the sale paid for the house in Santa Monica, not far from (Bertolt) Brecht’s, in fact.” Now, like ex-neighbor Brecht, Meier has run afoul of U.S. Congressional communist-hunters and taken refuge in East Berlin. But Meier – never a Communist Party member – has a private agenda unknown to his hosts and even to the committee that cited him for contempt and deported him: He is here to spy on behalf of the Americans.
Everyone else Meier meets in the Russian zone appears to have a covert job, too: the culture-loving officer keeping tabs on artists’ unsanctioned words and deeds; the hale-fellow Yankee colleague who might be a double agent; the assistance-seeking émigré housewife who may be more savvy than she seems. “It’s a dangerous place for amateurs,” one of his handlers warns Alex. Sure enough, thanks to a broad-daylight attack by two thugs, by the end of his first 24 hours in Berlin, Meier has lost his amateur status.
Mr. Kanon, author now of seven top-notch novels of period political intrigue, conveys the bleak, oppressive, and creepy atmosphere of occupied Berlin in a detailed, impressive manner. It’s a city where doormen, waiters and bellboys are paid to notice things and even household objects have ears (“Had the chandelier been listening?” Into this convincing chronicle, the author weaves Alex’s memories of his youthful life in Berlin before the war – including an idyllic “summer of sex” with the daughter of an old family friend, a bewitching woman he will be asked by his new masters (who multiply in alarming ways) to surveil.
“Leaving Berlin” is a mix of tense action sequences, sepia-tinged reminiscence, convincing discourse and Berliner wit (“The Russians think aspirin is a miracle drug”). The book is stuffed with incident and surprise yet it heeds the sage advice of Mr. Kanon’s simulacrum of shrewd playwright Brecht, who advises: “Leave something for the second act.”