Library Director’s Notebook
In his recent novel Leaving Berlin ,Joseph Kanon has added an excellent novel to the impressive Cold War spy novel genre. The story begins in 1949 with World War II scarcely four years ended but the conflict between Western democracies and Russian-led communist countries well underway.
Alex Meier, a young Jewish writer who had fled Nazi Germany in the 1930’s finds himself in the very unenviable position of defending himself before a U.S subcommittee investigating communism in the United States. Unwilling to name names to the Senate committee, Meier is threatened with deportation from the United States. At this bleak point in his life he is offered a secret deal whereby he will pose as a traitor to the U.S. in order to gain inside information about the Communists in East Germany. Since he has very little choice, Meier returns to East Germany, posing as a returning ex-patriot, disgusted with western capitalism, and he is regaled as a hero and communist supporter.
In the very early days following the War, the border between East and West Germany had not been fully solidified, although it was rapidly hardening. The Russian communists were very much in charge of their East German confederates and their influence is everywhere. Meier’s job is to reconnect with old friends, including an old girlfriend now sleeping with a high-ranking Russian official to surreptitiously learn what he can about the communists and their plans for Germany and Eastern Europe.
Meier soon learns what an amateur he is. His very first encounter with his East German contact results in a fatal shooting. Quickly Meier learns not to trust anyone, including his oldest friends. Tensions rise as Meier finds himself entangled in layers of deceit as he uncovers knowledge of Soviet and East German atrocities that would be of immense interest to the Western world. Loyalties fray and dead bodies start to pile up, leaving Meier to wonder if he will ever be able to leave Berlin alive.
Leaving Berlin is an excellent novel of action and psychological tension. It is easy to imagine it as an exciting movie with an international cast. But since the book is always better than the movie, I recommend reading this novel now, or whenever you are in the mood for a fast-paced, entirely plausible Cold War thriller.