Winter Work, by Dan Fesperman

The eleven months between the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the reunification of Germany in October 1990 must have been a strange time. Strange is probably an understatement. For decades, Berlin had been one of the foci of the Cold War. It was a place where East Germans had tried to escape to the West. Spies and police from both the West and the Soviet sphere of influence battled covertly throughout the divided city. But then, the wall came down and everything changed. There was suddenly space to speak freely and renegotiate old alliances. Dan Fesperman’s Winter Work takes place in that space, among people who were used to following the old rules but now find themselves scrambling for safe harbor before someone decides that they know too much.

Winter Work centers on two characters. Emil Grimm is a former high-ranking officer of the Stasi, a feared organization that recruited an estimated 16% of the East German population as informants (figure given by one of the characters in the book). Our other protagonist, Claire Saylor, works for the CIA. Under the old rules, the two would be enemies. With the wall down and secrets going at a premium, there’s a chance that Emil and Claire could become allies.

The novel opens with a disturbing interruption to Emil’s daily walk. Not far from his house in the exclusive woods north of Berlin, Emil finds a group of special police investigating the scene of an apparent suicide. The dead man is Emil’s old comrade from the Stasi, Lothar. Because the man in charge of the special police on the scene is an old semi-enemy of Emil’s, Emil has to watch his words carefully when he talks to Krauss. For example, he refrains from pointing out to Krauss that the gun is being held in his Lothar’s off-hand. Emil only really managed to get out of the uncomfortable situation when a detective with the Volkspolzei turns up to officially investigate the death. (Krauss’s people only do unofficial investigations. Mostly they make things disappear). Meanwhile, Claire is trying to find a way to get back out into the field, after being roped into a CIA operation that amounts to cold-calling everyone in their East German Rolodex in order to buy secrets. When her boss offers her a chance to meet with someone who says he has something to sell, Claire leaps at the chance.

We learn that Emil and Lothar were planning to sell some of the secrets they’ve collected from the Stasi, in exchange for money and a safe place in the West. With Lothar dead, Emil has to take the lead, even though he’s always worked desk jobs for the Stasi. He uses everything he remembers from training field agents to sneak around the upheaval in Berlin after stepping into Lothar’s shoes. First, he attempts to meet with the CIA agent (Claire) Lother arranged to meet, only for that meeting to go bad when Soviet thugs blunder in with threats of violence.

All of this happens in the first chapters of Winter Work and things never really slow down as Emil and Claire try to work their schemes. The only places where the plot slows down (as if for a breather) offer backstory for the protagonists. We learn about Emil’s wife, who has ALS, and the more-than-friend who takes care of both of them. We learn about Claire’s frustrations with superior officers who won’t let her follow her own initiative. And on top of the main plot and the backstory, we get plenty of lessons in the free-for-all fighting between the CIA, the Soviets (who don’t seem to realize that their regime is going to fall pretty soon), and East Germans over scraps of information. Oh, and real-life super-spy Markus Wolf has a not-insignificant role in this book. It’s a lot.

Winter Work is one of the best thrillers I’ve read in a while. Although the plot races along, character development is never sacrificed. The stakes remain high and Fesperman does outstanding work at recreating the tense and wild atmosphere of Berlin during the winter of 1989-1990. I highly recommend this book to fans of the genre who like their thrillers based in real history.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, c. 1963 (Image via Wikicommons)

The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures, by Jennifer Hofmann

On the surface, the absurd and the surreal seem self-indulgent. Works in this group are highly self-referential. They only make sense if you forget everything outside of the work. You have to forget reality to understand them. Jennifer Hofmann’s haunting novel, The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures, is a good example of why we need surrealism. As Kafka, Magritte, and the rest knew, sometimes the only way to communicate the insanity of daily modern life is to create something just as insane.

Bernd Zeiger is a very ordinary man living in a very insane country. His entire adult life, Bernd has worked for Management—an organization that is clearly the Stasi. The Stasi, along with the East German government, created what I’ve heard called the most surveilled nation in world history. Zeiger’s first major assignment was to work with a psychiatrist to create a manual that would utterly demoralize and disorient targets of the state government. As the novel opens, Zeiger is at a press conference watching another agent give an announcement all according to the manual. The other agent dresses dully, speaks dully, and uses deeply dull bureaucratic language even as he talks about increasing demonstrations around the country. We have the benefit of knowing that East Germany is in its final days. Zeiger, however, and the rest of his comrades believe that the state will march on into the foreseeable future.

East German workers constructing the Berlin Wall, 1961 (Image via Wikicommons)

The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures quickly evolves from this relatively comprehensible beginning into layers of strange adventures. Zeiger roves East Berlin, searching for a lost girl who caught his fancy, only to fall prey to memories of the worst thing Zeiger ever did and to the machinations of other Management agents who are caught up in their own existential death spirals. Evens grow increasingly bizarre as Zeiger finds out that he’s being spied on by his colleagues, who want to find out what Zeiger knows about a man Zeiger helped incarcerate around the time he finished the infamous manual.

In other hands, this novel might have been a story about a man realizing that he’d hurt people in service to a country that didn’t deserve his loyalty. (If you’d like to see that story, I strongly recommend The Lives of Others.) Instead, it’s a story about a group of men who go down with the ship. They’ve been so warped by Management (using Zeiger’s manual) that they can’t imagine a world without the state. They can’t conceive of it ever ending. Fittingly enough, The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures concludes in a mental hospital.

This novel is a deeply unsettling read, full of paranoia and weirdness. Readers who like to shake off sanity for a little while and dive into surrealism to see what they can learn should enjoy this one. I’d also recommend it to readers who are curious about what life was like just on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.