It is, I am fairly sure, just a coincidence that the books I have been reading recently have been about the second World War, and more specifically its aftermath. (Or is it? Is there something going on in my subconscious that is leading me to these books? Probably not!) This novel, a present, tells the story of a journalist arriving in Berlin shortly after the end of the war in Europe, but before the end of the Pacific war. I am sure it is revealing that despite having followed this character’s adventures over 500 or so pages, I can’t tell you his name. He is strangely unengaging for a first person character who gets the girl, solves the riddle, stands up to the bad guys, and does the right thing by war survivors. We are presumably intended to think of him as a hero, but despite the many attempts at realism I never once thought of him as a real person.
Arriving in Berlin he stumbles across a murder, which in time honoured fashion no-one else thinks is worth pursuing. He doggedly chases down the culprits all the while reigniting a pre-war romance, getting stories for his magazine, and observing impassively the destruction and despair all around him. This takes time, and a large supporting cast of characters who one by one are ticked off as potential suspects or bumped off along the way in a manner which removes all possible suspense. That’s not the interest of the book, of which surprisingly there was some. Berlin in mid to late 1945 was obviously devastated by the Allies bombardment and subsequent capture, and the behaviour of survivors is described here with some originality. Nazi scientists are hunted by the US and Russians, and their war crimes glibly overlooked. Other Nazis buy “forgiven” status from Jewish survivors, not because they are innocent but because the survivors are desperate for money. The huge differences between the surviving Berliners, desperate for shelter, food and water, live alongside Allied troops who seemingly want for nothing, creating a black market which is the origin of the murder. This is a complex environment for a murder mystery/thriller, where the foreground is less interesting that the context.
Both this novel and “Look Who’s Back” provide an interesting commentary on the question of why Germany fought to the bitter end, leading to the destruction of Berlin and other German cities, and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. The Hitler of “Look Who’s Back” is clear – the punishment for losing the war is death – the Reich needed to be destroyed because it was unworthy, because it lost the war. This was not a long rearguard action hanging on for the super-weapon that never emerged, but a protracted suicide. Of course that is not how most Germans saw it. The perspective most often articulated in Kanon’s Berlin is that ordinary, good, Germans were the victims – that their cities were firebombed, their citizens targetted, long after the point they could effectively defend themselves, their women raped by rampaging Russians and others, then starved and frozen once the war ended. There is little or no understanding from Kanon’s good Germans that they are reaping what they sowed. It is unusual from a novel of this kind to have such a finely balanced discussion of difficult issues like this, and it sits uncomfortably with the other, much more conventional elements of the novel. (Incidentally, Anthony Beevor’s “Berlin” is very good on this point).
If you enjoy complex, and long, murder mysteries in the Le Carre tradition, you might enjoy this.