Leaving Berlin

leaving b

Leaving Berlin
By Joseph Kanon
Simon & Schuster – £12.99

Having already written novels interestingly anchored in Venice, Hollywood and of course, Istanbul with Istanbul Passage, the Edgar Award-winning author Joseph Kanon now returns for the first time in a decade, to the city he captured so memorably in The Good German (the 2006 film adaptation of which starred George Clooney and Cate Blanchett).

Concise and well-written, resolute and simultaneously regal, Leaving Berlin transports the reader back to 1949 at the height of the American Airlift, in which book’s protagonist – a young, savvy, German Jew by the name of Alex Meier – essentially runs the show from beginning to end.

Indeed, having fled the Nazis during the war years, Meier has recently returned to Berlin from the U.S., where, having fled the storm(s) of McCarthy era paranoia, is invariably working for the CIA. So what ensues is the usual Graham Green/Le Carre induced, spy-type fare; although herein, one gets a really good sense of what Berlin must have been like during those most austere of years. A time when Berliners didn’t mind the intermittent power cuts, as they at least enabled a worn and wary populace to not have to actually see ”how bad the food is.”

Interspersed with quasi-jocular visions of Bertolt Brecht – another returnee to the city – Kanon writes with a certain finesse in which he bequeaths oodles of information with very few words. A certain sort of power prose if you will, replete with poignant provocation and punctuation, in which the reader is invited to assimilate for themselves: ”Alex looked at him, the boy they’d hidden under the stairs. His hair, once the colour of Irene’s, was now indeterminate, cropped short, prison style, easy for delousing. Dirty, streaked with grime, his skin drawn tight over the bones, so that his eyes seemed to bulge out, too big for his face. Holding on to the newel, some support” (‘Kulturbund’).

Each of the eight chapters, which are invitingly named after an area of this most unique of cities, is intelligently brought to bare by way of a succinct form of ambiguity. A quality which, in and of itself, is always a good thing. Always a literary attraction.

”No one writes period fiction with the same style and suspense – not to mention substance – as Joseph Kanon,” writes Scott Turow. Even the front cover of the book depicts a period of Berlin’s history, that remains as resonant today, as it probably will in another hundred years from now.

A most idiosyncratically, intriguing read.

David Marx

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