Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Review of Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon (2015, Simon & Schuster)

Prior to the war and his flight to the United States, Alex Meier was friends of the von Bernuth and Engel families. 1948, a victim of the McCarthy witch-hunts, he’s now heading to Berlin to try and earn his way back to his adopted home and son as an American spy. The plan is to return as a socialist intellectual and persuade his old flame, Irene von Bernuth, to collect pillow talk from her present lover, a senior figure in the Russian administration. The only way in and out of the blockaded city is by airlift and once there it’s a game of survival inside a moral maze. He’s welcomed as a returning hero, but is quickly drawn into a deadly game amongst old and new friends. It’s clear that the socialist paradise promised by the Russians and their German puppets is a mirage and that he cannot trust anyone. Leaving Berlin alive, with his deal complete, will be a challenge, especially since his mission careens off plan the moment he arrives.

Joseph Kanon tale explores the moral quandaries of a world with little trust amongst friends and allies, permeated by constant state of fear, betrayals, and little battles to gain an upper hand; where friends conspire to keep the past and present hidden, and inform on each other; where an indiscretion such as an ill-placed joke can lead to hard labour. Meier is placed back amongst pre-war friends, each of whom has survived in different ways, and into a society which has unfamiliar rules. However, he’s a natural at intricate plots and spy craft, and he’s quick to adapt. Despite the wider themes of post-war politics and the developing cold war, Kanon keeps the tale at the intimate scale and the tangle of conflicted relationships between old friends and family members. And there’s a nice sense of place and time. The result is a thriller with a small t, where there’s a stream of small twists and turns, and the tension simmers rather than boils over.

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