If you’re watching Deutschland ’83 or ’86 or ’89 (and you should be, dammit) you should think of Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon as an inadvertent prequel. Though it wasn’t well known at the time, the DDR was in terminal decline by 1983. Kanon’s novel describes what was going on in Berlin just before the satellite state was formally instituted, when the east and west were beginning to size each other up and the two halves of the city were starting to go in different directions. Think Deutschland ’49.
The main protagonist is a writer, Alex, who fled to America during the Nazi period but who falls foul of anti-communist hearings in the States. His return to Berlin is a cultural coup for the Russian Zone, but he has actually set up a deal with the American secret service to enable him to return to the US one day, and to be reunited with his son.
Moving through the novel are unrepentant Nazis and firm enthusiasts for the Russian regime, together with, oddly, the playwright Berthold Brecht. Kanon doesn’t take sides, even as he tries to force Alex to do so. But the East German dream is being sullied even before the state is formed. No one can be trusted. No one can be themselves. And nothing is what it seems. There is more moral ambiguity than during the war. Kanon encourages us to wonder what compromises we would take in order to survive.
Most books I review deserve concentration by the reader: this book demands it with characters of similar names – Markus, Markovsky and Martin – and constant twists. Indeed, by the end of the book we seem to be twisting and turning so much that it begins to feel like a game of musical chairs and Alex’s fate will be decided when we run out of pages. We observe rather than co-experience Alex’s development as he hones his observational and deductive skills – and his instincts for survival. The transformation takes place in front of us; it’s hard to keep up with but achtung is it exciting.
I can’t reveal how the book ends but there’s plenty to make you think, afterwards, about dogma, doctrine, truth, falsehood, and deception and self-deception. Recommended.