It’s impossible now to pinpoint the moment when the Soviet Union became America’s official enemy rather than its ally after the end of World War II. The moment had definitely passed by the time Alex Meier returned to Berlin in 1947 at the invitation of the Soviet and German authorities. Little do they know Alex is actually returning at the behest of the American government to spy on the other members of the Kulturbund and any Soviets he can in Joseph Kanon’s latest thriller, Leaving Berlin.
Alex Meier left Germany after a brief incarceration in Sachsenhausen. Because he was a well-known writer, Alex had connections to get himself out and across the Atlantic to the United States. After the war, Alex found himself on the wrong side of the government again, when he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. His refusal to testify and his impending divorce gave Alex the perfect cover to return to Berlin, according to his American recruiters. So, back to Berlin to be a part of the new worker’s paradise goes Alex. He’s wined and dined and introduced to other artists who were invited back. Bertholt Brecht, Helene Weigel, and other real-life figures make cameo appearances. Alex also finds that a few of his pre-war acquaintances survived and are now in a position to help him with his new career as a spy.
Leaving Berlin is as much about the post-war confusion and transformation of the city as it is about the returned writer, Alex. The wall hadn’t yet been built, but the city is no less divided. Spies and soldiers abound. The city is just as deadly as it was in 1945. Alex ducks several assassination attempts as he gathers information for his American masters. The only difference is that the appearance of peace has to be maintained so that the city doesn’t erupt in violence between the supposed allied forces.
A few years ago, I read The Forsaken by Tim Tzouliadis. I was very much reminded of Tzouliadis’ recounting of Americans who bought into Soviet propaganda and emigrated to the Soviet Union in search of jobs during the Great Depression. The artists and writers who returned to Berlin and joined the Kulturbund were former Communists who fled the Nazis before World War II. They were still believers in the revolution, even after Stalin’s bloody purges and the pervasive police state that had developed. In Leaving Berlin, only Brecht is famous enough to be able to say what he likes. Everyone else is terrified to criticize any aspect of the Communist Party or the government. It isn’t long before Alex becomes just as paranoid as everyone else. It’s not long before the recently welcomed artists are being subjected to surveillance, document “checks,” imprisonment, and interrogation.
Leaving Berlin is slow to ratchet up to thriller levels of pacing. Kanon takes his time about situating his protagonist in Berlin. He gives us flashbacks to Alex’s early life. Other characters get to tell Alex their stories. Unlike some readers (like this book’s reviewer in Publisher’s Weekly), I didn’t think the exposition bogged down. I was fascinated to see the origins of the Stasi, for example, and the compromises the Germans had to keep making in order to preserve some independence after the war. This book brings up the difficult questions of dealing with a country that had, collectively, committed unprecedented crimes against humanity. Alex’s mission, in that sense, is just a vehicle for exploring this complex landscape.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 3 March 2015.