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Showing posts with label Joseph Kanon The Good German. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joseph Kanon The Good German. Show all posts

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.

Thursday 6 August 2015

Review: Rhidian Brook, The Aftermath

Germany in the immediate aftermath of World War Two is a popular setting for contemporary novels written in English. On this site, I have recently reviewed two others: Joseph Kanon's The Good German and Ben Fergusson's The Spring of Kasper Meier. This book is another one. There must be others and already enough for a Compare and Contrast MA dissertation.

I began with a prejudice against this book. The author is described as a "regular contributor" to BBC's radio "Thought for the Day" which in the days when I listened to radio was an Establishment platform for unctuous religiosity. Oh dear, I thought, I hope that's not what I'm in for with this novel. 

Fortunately, I wasn't, though my suspicions returned when I got to the last of the author's "Acknowledgments". All novelists have to have these nowadays - younger writers think it means providing a list of their Likes - and Rhidian Brook ends his own with an acknowledgment to "The Author of All Things". 

Finger down throat.

The novel maintains a well-structured pace and I didn't at any point want to give up on it. The pace quickens at the end but the end itself could be found unsatisfactory: Brook resolves the situation of  his main German characters, Stefan Lubert and his daughter Frieda but not that of his main English characters, Lewis, Rachael and their son Edmund who have been living in the requisitioned Lubert villa. It's left for us to imagine the outcome for them but it is such a big task that it feels like it's been dumped on the reader.

The strength of the novel is in the feeling of edginess which Brook creates in handling the relations between his main characters. Lewis-Rachael, Rachael - Lubert, Edmund-Frieda, Lewis-his colleagues, Edmund and the street orphans of Hamburg. You can imagine it done as a stage play with silences and exits. 

All the characters are dealing with loss and it is their different responses to loss which the novel explores. The ending simply restores one of the losses, quite literally: Lubert's wife and Freida's mother, who they have believed dead in the 1943 Hamburg firestorm, turns out to be alive.

There are moments of unctuousness but his German orphans are constructed around their knowledge of English swearing, definitely not acquired from Thought for the Day.

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