On a mid-80s visit to East Germany via West Germany, conservative humorist P.J O’Rourke was disappointed when he passed through the infamous Checkpoint Charlie for its lack of noir. What he got instead was bored frisking and robotic stares. Walking around East Berlin didn’t fulfill his expectations either. Instead of wind-swept newspapers, dark alleys (where double and quadruple agents lurked), he found dorkishly-dressed citizens with the super-pale “Kremlin complexion” desperately waiting in line at the government store for toilet paper.
Berlin, mere months away from its implosion, resembles the bombed-out city that is as much a character as the actual ones in Joseph Kannon’s Leaving Berlin. It is scorched and blackened, and the smell of the World War II aerial bombardment is still in the air.
But this husk, which Kanon locates in 1949, and O’Rourke witnessed in the late 80s was, more than any other city, ground-zero of the Cold War.
Once upon a time, Berlin was worth going to war over – such was its strategic importance. Stalin risked war over control of the city in 1948, when he shut off Western access to it; Truman reacted not just with the ultimately successful Berlin Airlift, in which he had pilots drop food to the starving Western residents, but rattled the nuclear saber by moving the Bomb onto an English airbase–well within striking range of East Germany. Kruschev called Berlin “the testicles of the West; one pull and they yelp.” He too risked war by erecting what he called “an Anti-fascist barrier,” but what was in reality a wall to keep East Germans from fleeing West. The American government saw a propaganda coup here, and made sure footage of fleeing East Germans trying to tunnel under or run past the Berlin Wall while it was still being built, was aired on all the networks to emphasize what JFK called “the failure of Communism.” Kennedy himself was obsessed with Berlin; throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis he worried that one misstep from his administration would cause the Soviets to overrun the Western sector. It was here, a year later, to wildly cheering audiences that the President gave his scrappiest speech. After peering through binoculars at the Eastern section, Kennedy was shaken, comparing it to “hell.” He then took to the podium and praised the resistance of the West Berliners to their demonic neighbors.
And Berlin did live up to its noir image at times. It was here that ex-Nazis were hastily “recruited” by both sides. Checkpoint Charlie was where captured spies were traded, as in the case of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. The Americans had a limited successful intelligence coup by building a tunnel from West to East to intercept Soviet communications.
Literature has contributed to this image. Berlin was where cynicism reigned. John Le Carree wrote his best book, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, with Berlin as a backdrop. His hyper-cynical protaganist, Alec Leamus, in effect, committed suicide by going back over the Wall rather than returning to his morally-compromised West. Graham Greene gave Orson Welles’ his best role, as the cynical Harry Lime who traded medicine to the highest bidder on either side.
Indeed, such is Berlin’s aura as a literary trope, that you can take any spy novel of the last 50 years, and you don’t require the name of this city when you read of wind-swept streets, fedoraed figures leaning against lampposts, and knife fights in alleys.
Joseph Kannon has been called the heir of Le Carree, Graham Greene and now Orwell. The choice of the latter is apt. In the past, Kanon tried to channel Le Carre’s ” a pox on both your houses” to the East and West; but his automatic assumption that the Soviet Union was worse won out. In Los Alamos, the reporter/detective protaganist, upon learning the Manhattan Project was penetrated, automatically sought to keep this information out of the hands of the “gangsters” to the East. In “The Prodigal Spy,” he attempted to inject political cynicism into his Vietnam vet/son of a Soviet mole, outed, by of all entities, the often-caroonish House Committee of Un-American Activities. The son, although lamenting his father’s murder, who died in his arms, and insulting J.Edgar Hoover, tasked himself with outing his father’s American controller as much out of patriotism as revenge.
In Leaving Berlin, these sentiments resound, and he has indeed moved into Orwell country. It is true that his protoganist is saluted as a resister to HUAC, and as such has to leave the country. He is as well a socialist. But Kanon, despite locating his story in Le Carre’s moral equivalence between East and West, has as his character’s model Orwell–not the Orwell who wrote Nineteen-Eighty Four, but the one who participated in the equally morally-compromised Spanish Civil War. In Homage to Catalonia (1938), in which he recounted his experiences as a trench soldier on the Loyalist side, and a hunted figure by the Stalinist secret police, who spent more time killing the politically-incorrect behind the lines than fighting Franco, Orwell gave the readers a bitter-sweet “if only.” Catalonia, which he saw for the first time “the working class in the saddle,” inspired him, and cemented his socialism. But the Stalinist control strangled any chance of such possibilities. Orwell witnessed first-hand the branding of his regiment (one loosely composed of Trotskyites, and socialists to the left of Russia) as fascists as well as himself (who was so “fascist” that he took a bullet in the throat courtesy of an actual fascist sniper) and was himself the target of a heresy hunt (de-classified documents rreveal how that Stalin fully intended to import his murderous Purge Trials into Spain; and Orwell no doubt would have been put on the dock).
Kanon’s Alex has the same experiences. Seeking a way back in, he willingly works for the CIA by going into the East section to do propaganda work for the Party, as well as rekindling a romance with a pre-war German woman who is having an affair with a Soviet policeman; the latter task is to provide an “in” for the Agency about what is happening in the Uranium mines slightly to the East. Alex quickly sees that whatever hopes the East German Communist Party had for a purer Socialist model is destroyed by the Soviet control of the city–Catalonia agaitn. Alex wises up and soon enthusiastically performs his brief (he hides out and seeks asylum for a former friend who was part of a work gang in said mines).
If there is a cynical Le Carre like figure present it is that of the communist playwright Betrolt Brecht, who darts in and out of the narrative, criticizing the Party while at the same time keeping the faith. Like many a follower of Stalin, Brecht rationalizes, as when he explains to Alex why he is extolling the Russians on the radio:
“Sometimes you have to work with things as they are. “Look at the church, the real one. All those crimes, so many years, and yet there’s the music. The art. We’re not priests, we’re artists. We accommodate. We survive.”
For all its virtues, Leaving Berlin is not perfect. Kanon’s Alex, who has that most sedentary of professions–a writer–, is a bit too robust in the assassination requirements of spy work. He almost loses a hand-to-hand combat battle with a trained Soviet operative, while at the same time shooting with deadly accuracy at equally trained Soviet gunmen.
Perhaps the greatest stumble, however, is that he has attempted to inject Le Carre into an Orwell-like protaganist. He is too informed to support the hasty comparisons the Old Left of the American blacklist to Soviet practices (Christopher Hitchens once wrote that while a Nation columnist, he met people there who thought Joe McCarthy worse than Stalin).