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Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Review: Joseph Kanon, Leaving Berlin



The old Aristotelian device of “unity of time, place and action” works for the novel as well as for the theatre. If you want to create dramatic tension, it’s probably the device of choice. But it has a downside. You can end up creating implausible coincidences – on the stage, it means that the hero or villain enters stage left at just the right moment – just fancy that! – and in the novel it means pretty much the same thing. Joseph Kanon’s novel has a bit of this dramatic clumsiness, even though (because it’s a spy story) you may be unclear whether it’s a hero or a villain who has just walked onto the page.

Like his novel, The Good German, which I reviewed here on 19 January 2015, Leaving Berlin is set in early post-war Germany – 1949, in fact. This setting is now a sub-genre with its own tropes. One of them is in danger of being over-used: the mass rapes perpetrated by Russian soldiers as they entered Germany from the east in 1944 – 45. These rapes were known about, condoned and even encouraged right up to the top – Stalin knew. They are now documented in history books to make up for omissions in histories written at a time when you didn’t write about such things. Novelists now use the stories and are in danger of over-using them as if dealing with a peculiarly Russian disorder.

But it wasn’t only Russian soldiers who raped. So did Allied soldiers, not on the Russian industrial scale but in a few cases amounting to atrocities, notably involving troops from the French colonies: see the Wikipedia page “Rape during the occupation of Germany” for an introduction. These Allied rapes are not used as a literary trope: the French were on our side and their troops were African.


The novel has what seems a sentimental moment straight out of Casablanca (pages 315 – 318) but Kanon then gives it an unexpected twist – after all, this is a spy novel and as such it works quite well.

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