Leaving Berlin: A Novel

Image of Leaving Berlin: A Novel
Release Date: 
March 3, 2015
Atria Books
Reviewed by: 

Leaving Berlin is a novel of big ideas—historical, psychological, sociological—if also rather sizeable flaws.”

Leaving Berlin is the story of Alex Meier, a German Jewish writer who escaped to America before World War II and, four years after its end, is forced to return. Refusing to testify before McCarthy, and facing deportation, he cuts a deal with US intelligence. He will return to Soviet-controlled East Berlin as an American operative and, if all goes well, his asylum in the US will be renewed.

Predictably, all does not go well. The Communists want Meier to work for them. Old friends need help. Meier’s loyalty is being drawn and quartered. Berlin, Kanon’s novel, its protagonist—everything is murky, convoluted, bent back on itself like an epicanthic fold.

The novel immediately captivates the reader with action, intrigue, alluring ambiguity. The prose is often lean if not malnourished. Kanon’s description is precise and evocative:

“He was the first young man Alex had met since he arrived, all the others buried or missing, irretrievable. Then a few dragging steps and Alex saw why: a Goebbels clubfoot had kept him out of the war. With the leg and the slick hair he even looked a little like Goebbels, without the hollow cheeks, the predator eyes.”  

Early on, Meier visits the Bernuth residence, where close friends once lived. The home is abandoned. In Kanon’s hands, the building is not only dynamic but anthropomorphic: “The sconces along the staircase wall, once gas, were still in place, even singed pieces of wallpaper, the same familiar pattern, now exposed to the street, all privacy gone, a woman whose clothes had been ripped away.” The writing is vivid, tactile; the imagery work to eroticize a derelict building.

We are as suspicious of Meier as he is of everyone and everything in this wounded city. Increasingly solipsistic, he doubts even his own awareness: “You think you know her? Maybe not so much anymore. It was easy to cross a line in Berlin, as easy as going from one sector to another.” Kanon’s needlework is clumsy here. His deft epigram is presented as internal monologue but clearly has the ring of narration.

In other ways, too, Kannon loses control of language. The dialogue, for instance, is often stilted and clipped. “‘They’ll kill you,’” his CIA handler says. “‘That’s what this is. Do it. In the head. Don’t think, just do it. Then run like hell.’”

This isn’t John le Carré or Graham Greene to whom Kanon’s work is compulsively compared. The analogy is lazy, frivolous. The tone, characterization, pacing and even the action—aside from a surface resemblance—are quite different. His prose, moreover, does not reflect the realistic minimalism of Greene, Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson. Rather, it seems borrowed from a hard-boiled detective novel or film noir.

Too much, in fact, has been lifted from the movies. Meier is intriguing, compelling even, but uncomfortably similar to Holly Martins from The Third Man. Both are writers, recently arrived from the West, in occupied Middle-Europe, a city of zones. The stories share tone, theme, character and incident. The film came out in 1949, when Leaving Berlin takes place. The screenplay was written by Greene, Kanon’s would-be mentor.

There is also too much interior monologue, which is not always used effectively, and the writing is sometimes false or clumsy:

“At least she didn’t look away, pretend he hadn’t seen, didn’t know. It would be in his face. She held his look. I’m sorry. I’m not sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. It’s not about you. Don’t look at me like that. It’s different. I couldn’t help it. You have no right—“  

Meier is obsessed with analyzing words, actions, motives. This accounts for the novel’s inwardness, but Kanon relies on this technique too much and executes it poorly. There’s also a sex scene, midway through the novel, that makes one blush—not at the lurid details but the empurpled prose.

Nonetheless, Kanon is skilled with the character of place. His Berlin is no facade. We can hear car doors slam shut, feel the brickwork of its crooked streets, see “the scaffolding of a building site and then, beyond a cleared, formless space, the dark hulk of the palace, singed with soot, the dome just a steel frame, but still standing.” (The author is at his best here, using the bombed-out husk of a city as a metonym for its people and their values: rickety hovels that might topple over at any moment, or which already have.

Leaving Berlin is a chronicle not of the events of mid-century, but of their social  and psychic aftershocks. War, occupation, Holocaust—which is, for Germany, both genocide and suicide—denial, reparation, recrimination. An internal cold war has been waged. In Berlin certainly but also, in a larger sense, throughout Europe and America. Kanon’s Germany is a nation-sized Army, a place of ubiquitous treachery, fear, oppression, informing, murder and still, horrifically, forced labor camps. The putative lesson of the Final Solution remains unlearned.

The war and its aftermath relentlessly intrude into Meier’s consciousness and Kanon’s narrative. The past is ongoing. Because of this, the novel exists in a Faulknerian durée—it branches off, reaching backward, circles to the present, and lurches forward. Alex will never be leaving Berlin, not entirely, and neither will his people. It will always loom overhead in an ongoing, eternal present.

There is no simple, straightforward human interaction in Berlin. Everyone wears two faces, at the very least. An old friend—now a Party functionary—asks Meier about his wife, back home in America. He thinks: “The third person to ask, but this time a hint of interrogation, something for the file.” Instead of conversation there are lies, propaganda, PR, disinformation, traps, the politically acceptable version of things. The war has created a fog of suspicion, unreliability and unknowability:

“The war? No sign. All the sins covered up. That’s what we do. The Russians cover theirs with memorials. Have you been down to Treptow? The memorial they’re building there? Stalin’s words, now in granite. A statue higher than this hill. A Soviet soldier rescuing a child. From Fascism. A broken swastika. Maybe someday somebody believes it.”

The war—like the Party, like the knowledge that Stalin is no more than Hitler with a different mustache—is both everywhere and nowhere.

Leaving Berlin is a novel of big ideas—historical, psychological, sociological—if also rather sizeable flaws. Kanon gets bogged down, too frequently, in didactic and administrative details that are of only marginal interest to the reader, who aches for the human narrative, not a series of political debates or a compendium of ceaseless facts.

Kanon’s work exudes a thorough knowledge of the subject and a devotion to it; he is a curator of the German war and its unique pathology; however, Kanon commits the category error so common to enthusiasts: he forgets that his own thirst for detail will not, in all likelihood, be shared by everyone. One man’s passion is, often enough, another man’s tedium.