The hero in Leaving Berlin, Joseph Kanon’s atmospheric and fast-paced historical thriller, is a pawn in a complicated Cold War chess match.
Alex Meier finds himself trying to stay alive in a game that has no rules, a game in which all of the other pawns have gone rogue.
The chess board is East Berlin, January 1949, the year of the airlift.
Hitler’s Nazi regime has been vanquished, but life under Russian military occupation isn’t much of an improvement. There is big talk of reconstruction, but the German capital is still in ruins, with people living in bombed-out buildings and the streets lined with rubble.
And the mood here is bleaker than the landscape. Berlin has become a community of Orwellian paranoia. Everyone in the Russian zone spies on and informs on colleagues and neighbors, then turns a blind eye when dissenters are whisked away to slave-labor prison camps.
Alex, the pawn at the center of Leaving Berlin (out Tuesday), is a German Jew who fled the country before the Holocaust. An acclaimed novelist, he lived for 15 safe years in America. Then he stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee, refusing to name names, and was kicked out of the States. Thus, he finds himself back in East Berlin, which is welcoming back its cultural elite.
But Alex has secretly struck a bargain with American Intelligence. If he can collect enough useful information to pass on while he hobnobs with highly placed Russian political and military types at all the propaganda galas he’ll be attending, maybe, just maybe, he can win passage back to the States.
His handler also expects Alex, the novice spy, to cozy up to a former girlfriend, Irene, the only woman he ever truly loved. She happens to be sleeping with a senior Russian officer.
But our hero’s life of dinner-party/pillow-talk espionage quickly turns ugly. There are double agents and double crosses — no one in this town can be trusted — and Alex almost immediately has blood on his hands, a body to dispose of and a crisis of conscience.
He wound up in Berlin because he was a man of moral courage, unwilling to buckle under to communist-hunting McCarthyism. But now, when taking a stand might mean a one-way ticket to a prison camp, or worse, Alex’s beliefs are suddenly a little more malleable.
It’s one sticky situation after another — and Alex will have to stay on his toes while “playing” people on both sides if he hopes to keep out of trouble. Luckily for him, he’s a fast learner.
Kanon, a publishing executive-turned-bestselling author, thoroughly knows the territory that he’s writing about. He has made post-WWII thrillers his specialty.
Kanon’s 2001 novel, The Good German, which also was set in Berlin, may be the best known of his six earlier works, if only because it became a 2006 movie starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett.
The old-fashioned spy craft, the many plot twists and the moral ambiguities that exist in all of the characters make Leaving Berlin an intriguing, page-turning thriller. There’s also a star-crossed love story — and an airport farewell — that might remind some readers of Bogie and Bergman.
But it’s the author’s attention to historical detail — his ability to convey the sights, sounds and feel of a beaten-down Berlin — that makes this book so compelling.
by Joseph Kanon
Atria Books, $27