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Monday 19 January 2015

Review: Jospeh Kanon, The Good German

This is a readable book, but even at 500+ pages, it tries to do too much.

It is most satisfactory as a credible recreation of life in Berlin immediately after the end of the war, a city in ruins, recently terrorised by Russian troops licensed to rape, and now coming back to some kind of life – occupying forces, arrests, tension, black markets, prostitution, and places for the troops to drink and dance. I get the feeling that Joseph Kanon has read all the history books.

It is also good in recreating the rapid political shifts which soon consigned the Nazis to the last war, and made Russia into America’s Number One Enemy. That meant, among other things, deciding to ignore the Nazi pasts of individuals deemed useful to the USA – Kanon picks on von Braun’s rocket scientists and makes one of them central to his novel.

The novel is unsatisfactory when it hands us the chases and shoot outs and hand to hand combat deemed essential to a good thriller. These have the feel of those pitiful trailers for violent American movies, featuring bullet- and bomb-proof heroes, which make a visit to a mainstream cinema such an unpleasant experience. When you write a novel you may indeed hope that someone will make a film of it, but you spoil the novel if you start writing a film script instead.

Likewise, the one long Sex Scene doesn’t belong here. I like sex but the sex scene isn’t sexy and, actually, isn’t appropriate to what is being worked out between Jake and Lena. It’s a stand alone scene which is out of place.

To end more positively, the exploration of moral dilemmas and moral compromises under totalitarian regimes is good and rarely heavy-handed. There isn't always a simple answer to the question, Who are the bad guys? - even in the world of the Holocaust. There are complex cases presented and pursued in an interesting fashion – Gunther, Professor Brandt, for example

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