Saturday, February 11, 2012

2,502: Berlin Crossing by Kevin Brophy

Berlin Crossing is a novel by Kevin Brophy, an Irish writer who spent time teaching in Germany in the period just after reunification and whose encounters with disenchanted Ossies were the inspiration for the novel.  Most books that deal with East Germany and the fall of the Wall are written from the point of view of dissident East Germans or focus on the iniquities of the Communist regime and the evil of the Wall. The received orthodoxy is that the reunification of the two Germany's was a good thing for everyone other than members and informants of the Stasi.

Brophy approached the subject in from a different and refreshing perspective.  His hero (or at least his focal point) is a teacher and former Party member from Brandenburg in the east.  Michael Ritter's life before reunification had been successful and relatively privileged. Although not a member of the security or political apparatus, he was a fully paid up believer in the system and had been saddened at its collapse.

Reunification has not been good for Michael, something which might help explain the curious dislikeability of the character for much of the book.  Dismissed from his job as an English teacher for being politically suspect (I.e. a former member of the Party), he also loses his mother shortly afterwards.  Worse is to follow.  His mother's dying words had been a request for him to find a pastor in another East German town, Bad Saarow, and the mention of Roland, a man whose name was not that of his father, who had died before Michael was born.

Having nothing better to do and piqued by curiosity, Michael makes the trip to Bad Saarow, which proves to be just the first step in a journey into the past both of Michael's family and East Germany itself.  All of Michael's preconceptions are shattered as he is forced to confront the fact that his beloved country was not the place he thought it had been and Michael is not who he thought he was.

I was sent a review copy of this by its publisher, Transworld, with a publicity blurb that claimed that were echoes of le Carré.  With due respect, and although the Cold War setting and the spy story plot device has a flavour of le Carré, I think this comparison is a little misleading.  Le Carré's key themes are those of deception and its dehumanising effects and the manipulations of governments and their agencies.  By contrast, Brophy's characters are, almost without exception, honest, even if wrong, and the deception that drives the plot is depicted as having been noble in its own way rather than the corrosive kind of lying that permeates the world of Smiley.

Berlin Crossing is a novel of love, sacrifice and of awakening.  I keep wanting to describe it as redemptive in nature, due to Michael's realisation that he had been mistaken about the true nature of the East German state.  This is not quite right though, as Michael has done nothing wrong himself and therefore does not have anything to be redeemed for, unless you count being on the losing side, or failing to celebrate the fall of the Wall, as a sin.

The structure of the book is interesting, incorporating a text within the text that acts as a device to flip from the central plot to the sub-plot that underpins the whole thing.  It also allows for a shift in time from post-Wall to the height of the Cold War.  As well as the clever  plotting and structuring, the characterisation is strong and avoids falling into the trap of predictability or stereotyping.  With one or two exceptions, the main characters show a mix of traits and motivations so they come across as believable and human.  I particularly enjoyed the development of Terry Feldmann, brother of one of the central characters.
I would also say that Brophy's also creates a real sense of time and place, which is critical for a story that cuts back and forth across the late 20th Century and ranges across Europe.

Criticisms?  Well, Brophy does have a bad habit of insisting on translating even the shortest German phrase he uses, which slows the story down and is a touch condescending.  Frankly, most of them were comprehensible even to this non-German speaker and those that weren't didn't really add anything essential to the story.

Secondly, and more seriously, there is a certain credibility gap at one point in the story.  A random Irish-German student is sent into East Berlin on a spy mission, despite having no training as a secret agent.  Although I can understand the plot demanding this, it doesn't quite ring true.  After all, the intelligence services couldn't really be that short of German speakers, could they?

These niggles notwithstanding, though, all in all, I found this an enjoyable , thought-provoking and evocative book which I would recommend, with the caveat that one should not approach it as a spy novel but as a piece of general fiction with some spy novel elements.


Alex (The Sleepless Reader) said...

"The received orthodoxy is that the reunification of the two Germany's was a good thing for everyone other than members and informants of the Stasi."

Ever since I moved to Brussels I've been in contact with several Germans who also feel this is not quite right. What I wonder is how much of this is related to the immemorial feeling of "those good old days" (and also the current financial crisis?).

Falaise said...

Alex - I suspect there's a bit of both involved in this and also maybe a feeling of being treated as second class by the Westerners.