The Matchmaker, by Paul Vidich, is an ambitious fusion of an historical novel with the tried and tested espionage format. The Cold War, and Berlin in particular, is fertile territory for cat and mouse escapades. What makes The Matchmaker different is that it explores ground that will be on a superficial level understood by many of us, but takes us in a fresh direction.
The Matchmaker isn’t really about the matchmaker at all, except that it is. How’s that for a spy thriller drama in which nothing is as it seems? The main protagonist is Anne Simpson, the American wife of an East German piano tuner, Stefan Hoehler. When Hoehler disappears it transpires that he was a Stasi agent, a ‘Romeo’ who had married Simpson to give him cover for his spy work. The CIA and West German intelligence want to find Hoefler’s boss, the ‘matchmaker’. It’s October 1989 and East Germany is beginning to crumble. This might be the last chance to bring the matchmaker to justice. Much of the novel consists of Simpson’s search for the matchmaker. Yet although the matchmaker himself plays a relatively small role in the novel, the character is extensively-researched and based on the real-life spymaster Markus Wolf. I have spent the last couple of evenings dipping into specific chapters of Wolf’s memoirs, Man Without a Face, as Vidich lists it as a source. You can, of course, read The Matchmaker on its own, but reading Wolf as well takes your understanding to a new level. Spy novels rely on a blurring between the possible, the plausible and the preposterous, and trying to work out what you’re dealing with is part of the experience.
The first few pages of Man Without a Face describe how Hathaway, the man from the CIA, tried to offer Wolf immunity from prosecution, in return for information:
“California,” he…[said]…“is very agreeable. Great weather all year round.”
“Siberia is agreeable, too,” I joked, painfully aware of the bizarre way real conversations in espionage can sometimes imitate the style of spy novels.
They do indeed. The matchmaker himself tells a similar story: “He said that Virginia was pleasant but that Santa Barbara had better year-round weather. I joked that Siberia too could be agreeable during certain times of the year.”
I share that story not to suggest that Vidich is leaning too heavily on his sources. It’s more of an Easter egg than anything. Man Without a Face is pacy, indiscreet and shows that Wolf (at least with the help of Anne McElvoy) could be as much storyteller as spymaster. So Vidich’s reworking of the stories needs to add something new and different. It does so in two key ways.
The first is through the experiences of Anne Simpson herself. In some ways she is an odd character, with resilience and quick-thinking that are surprising. She learns to speak spy particularly quickly, and she senses whom to trust, whom to fear, and to whom to be indifferent either way. The majority of thrillers choose as their lead character someone who has agency throughout: Simpson, as a Romeo’s wife, had that agency removed and has to rebuild her personal power just as East Germans were beginning to break free of the SED. Yet she remains an outsider: although she blends into the crowds who flocked to the Brandenburg Gate on 9 November, she is not of them. We have seen from many other sources the joy and bliss to have been (and then not been) in East Berlin that night. Here’s what it might have been like to be on the run from a secret service fixated on business as usual just as their world crashed around them. Vidich points out the contrast between the experience of an individual and an historical moment.
Many a writer uses the tale of an individual to explain the historic moment in which their work is set. The Matchmaker does something different: it gives you a backdrop with which you’re familiar and uses it to explore something else. So the second aspect that Vidich explores and that Wolf never could is the moral core. Wolf tries to talk about his belief in the East German cause but he is too interested in the game of espionage. He does some digging on that man Hathaway and ‘I felt a certain empathy for him as an intelligence pensioner. Like me, he had been unable to…simply devote his remaining years to…retirement. He was captive to the deathly puzzle he had spent his last working years trying to solve.’ Wolf loves his trade too much – in fairness, he knows it – to comment critically on its ethical dilemmas. The man without a face is a man in the world, strutting between limousines and five star hotels.
By contrast, Anne Simpson makes herself a moral arbiter. The CIA are after the matchmaker and so is the West German BND. They have got Simpson on board to help. But the CIA have a different agenda from the BND and Simpson’s is different still: two (or more, because the CIA is divided) professional agendas against a personal one. The Matchmaker considers personal ambition, corporate strategy and personal notions of justice: what it might mean to be caught up in other people’s stories and what you might be able to do about it, even under circumstances of state repression and international intrigue.
The Matchmaker is a short book, but a long read. It will send you in directions you don’t expect. What you do with the information you find is up to you.
Thanks to No Exit Press for the review copy and Anne Cater for the blog tour invitation.