"From the bestselling author of Istanbul Passage--called a "fast-moving thinking man's thriller" by The Wall Street Journal--comes a sweeping, atmospheric novel of postwar East Berlin, a city caught between political idealism and the harsh realities of Soviet occupation. Berlin 1948. Almost four years after the war's end, the city is still in ruins, a physical wasteland and a political symbol about to rupture. In the West, a defiant, blockaded city is barely surviving on airlifted supplies; in the East, the heady early days of political reconstruction are being undermined by the murky compromises of the Cold War. Espionage, like the black market, is a fact of life. Even culture has become a battleground, with German intellectuals being lured back from exile to add credibility to the competing sectors. Alex Meier, a young Jewish writer, fled the Nazis for America before the war. But the politics of his youth have now put him in the crosshairs of the McCarthy witch-hunts. Faced with deportation and the loss of his family, he makes a desperate bargain with the fledgling CIA: he will earn his way back to America by acting as their agent in his native Berlin. But almost from the start things go fatally wrong. A kidnapping misfires, an East German agent is killed, and Alex finds himself a wanted man. Worse, he discovers his real assignment--to spy on the woman he left behind, the only woman he has ever loved. Changing sides in Berlin is as easy as crossing a sector border. But where do we draw the lines of our moral boundaries? Betrayal? Survival? Murder? Filled with intrigue, and the moral ambiguity of conflicted loyalties, Joseph Kanon's new novel is a compelling thriller and a love story that brings a shadowy period of history vividly to life"--
In the 1930’s, prior to World War II, Alex Meier, a German Jew (half Jewish), was arrested in Germany, not for being Jewish, but for having ties to the Communist Party. As a political prisoner in Sachsenhausen, he was beaten and subjected to brutal conditions. When his freedom was purchased by Fritz von Bernuth, the father of close friends, he left his country behind and traveled to California where he intended to live out the rest of his life. However, at the war’s end, when the fear of Communism exploded, investigations led to the discovery of his background. His socialist and communist ties were uncovered. When, using blackmail-like tactics like those used in Russia and Germany, he still refused to give up the names of his friends, he was sent back to East Germany and forced to part from his wife and son.
Although anti-Semitism still raged on in Germany, he was welcomed as a Communist in East Germany. After being recruited as a spy by the CIA, he found himself also under the scrutiny of German Communists working for Russia. He is subtly blackmailed into working for them as well. The novel’s hero is a born double agent who managed to manipulate and outwit those that tried to murder him and/or use him to gain information. He finds he can do whatever he has to in order to survive and earn his way back, hopefully, to California where his now ex-wife and child reside. He is a devoted father
He discovers that his utopian vision of a Socialist Germany is not what it is cracked up to be. With Russia in charge, it is no different than it was in Germany before the war or in the United States, for that matter, as they sought to uncover secret Socialists and Communists whom they considered highly suspect and possibly dangerous. Because of his status as a writer, part of the new cultural wave sweeping Germany, he was entitled to a better way of life than most people. Instead of everyone getting the same, according to their needs, he was afforded extra ration cards, places to eat where ration cards were not needed and food was good and plentiful. He was treated like a celebrity, as an honored guest. Housing was quickly made available to him. However, he could not trust anyone because everyone was being used by the system to create a community that spied on each other to get what they needed to survive. There was no freedom as there was in America. He was very disillusioned with both systems, but he preferred to put those guilty to right and return to America.
The conclusion of the tale leaves the reader with more than a thriller resolved. It leaves the reader with some philosophical thoughts to ponder. How was it that the Germans complained about their suffering after the war, yet they had brought it upon themselves. They resented the rationing and the devastation, yet, they never took responsibility for the pain and suffering and destruction and loss of innocent lives for which they were responsible. How is it they didn’t notice the shortages in the ghettos, the disappearing victims, the theft of their belongings, the suddenly empty homes with no residents? It was only when it affected them, when the Russians were as barbaric as they had been, raping and pillaging, that they complained. They were not innocent, no matter how much they protested.
As far as I am concerned, anyone who did not speak out or try to stop Hitler’s advance, anyone who watched them invade their country and cheered them on as they murdered the Jews, humiliated the homosexuals, beat the gypsies, anyone like that was complicit and no matter what country they came from, they share in the guilt. That means the Poles, the French, the Russians, the Italians and all the fascists and all the anti-Semites will have to answer to some greater power, someday, for their despicable behavior.
I listened to this as an audiobook and found that transitions from one character and one scene or one time to another were sometimes awkward, but otherwise it really held my attention.
On the other hand, I really liked the description of a divided Berlin before the Wall went up. The story takes place during the Berlin airlift, and the constant buzz of the incoming flights is described eerily well right from the first paragraph. Many times the author has written so that you can place yourself in this city, just barely recovering from destruction and awash in the politics of East vs West. That made the book fun for me to read.
The story moves at a cracking pace and Kanon is his usual trustworthy self in creating the charged atmosphere of the era and place, making it a very entertaining read.
I love Kanon's writing- his pace and style perfectly match the plot details. The story itself is excellent and the writing is highly evocative. If you love spy thrillers and you enjoy excellent writing, this is a great one to pick up.
But this book is, most of all, a thriller. Meier is recruited by the Americans to spy on his old girlfriend and, not much later, he is recruited by a German Communist. And, my, what a tangled web! Meier gets a real good idea of what life in East Germany is becoming.
This is an intelligent can’t-put-it-down book, both plot- and character-driven. I need a sequel.
Thank you to luxuryreading.com for the lovely hardcover copy of LEAVING BERLIN. It's a keeper!
Our office building security guy was in Berlin after the war and as I was reading this book I kept thinking about him and what he might have gone through and if he even dealt with some of these types of characters.
Pick this one up. You will be pulled into a story where you will be cheering for the different characters to succeed and survive.
However, plans go awry when murders of East German and Russian officials and re-acquaintances with the former girlfriend find Alex playing the CIA, East German police and Soviets against each other.
Enjoying Kanon's previous work, Los Alamos, I looked forward to reading this novel. However, I found much of the plot tedious and plodding, especially the game-playing between the Berlin adversaries. The action scenes are the only thing which kept me reading.
Alex Meier, a young Jewish writer, fled the Nazis for America before the war. But the politics of his youth have now put him in the crosshairs of the McCarthy witch-hunts. Faced with deportation and the loss of his family, he makes a desperate bargain with the fledgling CIA: he will earn his way back to America by acting as their agent in his native Berlin. But almost from the start things go fatally wrong. A kidnapping misfires, an East German agent is killed, and Alex finds himself a wanted man. Worse, he discovers his real assignment—to spy on the woman he left behind, the only woman he has ever loved. Changing sides in Berlin is as easy as crossing a sector border. But where do we draw the lines of our moral boundaries? At betrayal? Survival? Murder? Joseph Kanon’s compelling thriller is a love story that brilliantly brings a shadowy period of history vividly to life.
Alex Meier is a German writer who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930’s for America, but then after the war fell afoul of Joseph McCarthy’s Committee on
All too soon, however, things start to go wrong. A Man is killed before his eyes, his old flame, Irene, is sleeping with a Russian agent, and a childhood acquaintance is in the East German secret service. Then his Irene’s brother shows up having escaped form the slave labor camp where the Soviets kept German prisoners of war, and Alex realizes that he has to try & help get him to the west.
There are twists and turns and switches on the switch that will keep you turning the pages until the very end.