|Novelist Photo by Axel Dupeux)|
Joseph Kanon, the former publishing executive, has demonstrated two great strengths in his novels: his capacity for providing a textured atmospheric backdrop to his murder mysteries populated by both historical and fictional characters, and his ability to convey to readers the pressing moral questions of the moment. In his seven novels, the setting for at least part of each novel has been between 1945 and 1950 where the unresolved issues of World War II are played out.
Apart from the mystery that is grippingly narrated and a predictable love affair between Connolly and the wife of one of the scientists, the most interesting facets of the novel are Kanon’s accounts of the desert and the isolation of those who are working on the Project. Officially everyone is a “ghost” in which the only communication with the outside world is a post office address in Santa Fe. Apart from the news of Roosevelt’s death, the end of the war in Europe and a Life issue that reveals the first images of the Nazi camps, little of what happens elsewhere filters into their self-contained world of work and recreation. Kanon’s decision to end the novel before the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan is I think unfortunate because we are deprived of the grayer ethical complexities that the historical Oppenheimer confronted. Instead, because of the demands of a thriller, we are left only with the question of treason – the merit or condemnation of sharing information with a dubious ally – which for the characters and most readers will be more a black-and-white issue.
Again the mystery in The Prodigal Spy is secondary to the historical atmosphere and moral dilemmas that Kanon evokes initially in McCarthyite America, then the repressive post-Dubcek Prague a year after Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring, and finally in Nixon’s America where the head of the FBI, Edgar Hoover, makes a cynical appearance. Kanon’s rich sense of history is evident in his knowledge of the Czech method of dispatching an enemy through defenestration – hurling a person out a window – a technique used by American Communists in this novel and one that he deploys later in Stardust (2009). Perhaps the most moral character in the novel is the Czech policeman, Zimmerman, who must perform a balancing act between accommodating his Communist superiors and pursing justice. He explains to Nick the closed (at least until the Soviets leave) investigation into the murder of the principled non-Communist Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk, who was a victim of defenestration in the late 1940s, and Zimmerman takes great risks to help Nick flee from Prague when the Communists are looking for him.
This plot summary may appear to be the setup for a standard Hollywood noir thriller, but Kanon is offering something far more intriguing. First, he deliberately stages in 1945 a HUAC-like spirited exchange between Minot and Lasner with often hilarious moments. The whole episode is completely fictional since it occurs two years before HUAC began its investigation into communists in the Hollywood film industry and all the studio heads who historically testified were friendly witnesses. More importantly, Ben finds out that his brother was feeding Minot false or inconsequential material to make the Committee look ridiculous. What I think Kanon is suggesting, that becomes clearer as the plot races to its conclusion, is that the hearings were a smokescreen for concealing what communist spies were really interested in – acquiring as much technical information as they could about the building of atomic weapons – the premise behind Los Alamos.
Jake looked down at the ground […]. Why hadn’t anyone told him? He had seen bombed cities before […] but nothing on this scale […]. Shells of houses, empty as ransacked tombs, miles and miles of them, whole pulverized stretches where there were not even walls […] landmarks had disappeared under shifting dunes of rubble […]. A beige cloud hung over everything – not smoke, a thick haze of soot and plaster dust, as if the houses could not quite bring themselves to leave. But Berlin was gone.In Leaving Berlin, Kanon writes: “Standing walls were pockmarked by shelling, marooned in empty spaces where buildings had collapsed, leaving gaps for the wind to rush through. The streets had been cleared but were still lined on either side with piles of brick and smashed porcelain and twisted metal. Even the smell of bombing […] was still in the air.” In both novels, the physical desolation is also a metaphor for the moral morass that has engulfed the city.
In The Good German, Jake is in Berlin to cover the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945. While there an American serviceman’s body is discovered and Jake has a second task. Yet neither he nor Kanon is really interested in these subjects. Jake is more keen on tracking down Lena, with whom he had an affair before the war. When he sees her, she appears as “a gaunt woman with stringy hair, sickbed pale, another ruin” trying to survive as a prostitute. Like Berlin, Lena Brandt is wasted, a shell, almost gone, ravaged by rapes and who almost died from the after effects of an abortion. Lena’s fate is similar to the female protagonist in Leaving Berlin, Irene von Bernuth, the survivor of a gang rape by Russian troops who has become the mistress of a Soviet State Security operative. She too is beloved by the central character, Alex Meier. (The portrayal of both damaged women seems to have been inspired by Kanon’s reading of the journalist Marta Hillers whose memoir, A Woman in Berlin, covers a three-month period in the spring of 1945 during the liberation of Berlin and its occupation by the Red Army. The writer describes the widespread rapes by Soviet soldiers, including her own, and the women's pragmatic approach to survival, often taking Soviet officers for protection. The book was adapted as a German feature film in 2008 starring Nina Hoss.)
The two other interconnected issues in The Good German that Kanon explores are the need to prosecute war criminals, including scientists, such as Lena Brandt’s husband who worked at a rocket site where the systematic starvation of slave labour occurred, and the role of American politicians who wanted the Occupation to serve America’s economic and strategic interests. That meant acquiring German technical and scientific equipment before they were captured by the Soviets and assisting scientists by evacuating them from Germany so that they could work for American corporations. Serving America’s needs also required downplaying the de-Nazification program that avoided in the words of one politician, “wasting our time by looking for Nazis under every bed.” Kanon allows both perspectives plenty of space, but it is not difficult to perceive which view will take priority. Think of the 1961 film Judgement at Nuremberg.
Berlin is far more dangerous than CIA officials conveyed to him in America. When he arrives, one of his handlers informs him that the place is like Dodge City with no restraints on violence. Soon afterwards, this agent is killed. Before dying, he tells Alex that he must undertake an act that is necessary if he is to survive in this urban jungle, and Alex complies. Perhaps his survivor instincts kick in but there is no indication that Alex is anything other than a naïve amateur. Unlike the protagonists in the novels of John le Carré or Charles McCarry, he has not acquired training either in the use of firearms or in the art of spycraft and yet in both skills he acquits himself over the course of the novel so well that it suspends belief, at least for this reader. Nonetheless, once he has crossed a moral line, it becomes less difficult the next time. Even when Alex is coerced into agreeing to spy for the emerging German secret state, in effect being a double agent, he handles himself with confidence. More plausible is the remarkable courage he demonstrates to repay a debt he owes to Irene’s late father, a Prussian aristocrat, who used his influence to free him from a Nazi concentration camp. Alex risks everything by caring for Irene’s brother, Erich, who shows up having escaped slave labor in the uranium mines, the existence of which is a state secret. He arranges for Erich to give a taped radio interview and facilitates his escape from Berlin. And he is able to expose further duplicity, always trusting his instincts on whether he can trust another person, including officials from Western agencies. Given his experience with Soviet and German Communists, Alex’s political maturity is also credible. At one point, he dismisses the belief that the Communists are no different from HUAC committee members, something he would not have done early on in the novel. His deeper insight into the realities of a Stalinist state – become an informer or pay the consequences – and fast learning in this treacherous world makes for an engrossing read. Like so many of Kanon’s previous novels, it is a fascinating exploration of transgressing moral boundaries. Unlike them, however, his protagonist, Alex, seems not to have wrestled with or lost any of his humanity.
|(photo by Keith Penner)|