Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Moral ambiguities in post-war Berlin (Books - The Good German by Joseph Kanon)

Joseph Kanon has been compared to Graham Greene, and having just read The Good German I can see why. He explores moral questions in a context where the political meets the personal but does so in a format that is recognizable as entertaining - the thriller. Kanon's plot doesn't baby the reader. It is intricate and he does not over-explain the action in a step-wise fashion - a quality I appreciate. Instead, events unfold fluidly through behavior and dialogue, their ambiguities intact. The setting of The Good German is just post-World War II Berlin. The concentration camps have been emptied. Berlin is rubble and the British, the Americans, and the Russians have carved it up into zones and are struggling over how justice can be wrought on the Germans. That's the political part of the story. Into this setting falls the body of an American soldier. No one knows who murdered him or why but a great deal of money is found on his corpse and American reporter Jake Geismar is not content to leave the story alone. That's the mystery/thriller aspect of the story. The book asks one question, the Germans were clearly responsible for the war but who do you hold accountable? The military sent to Berlin to clean up the mess seem to find that, beyond the Nazi party leadership and the camp guards, everyone else seemed to have been following orders or trying to stay alive. No ordinary individual German seems to think they had any culpability. Is a greifer (a spy who turned Jews and other criminalized groups in to the Nazi's) guilty? Even if they are Jewish themselves? How about a scientist who collected statistics for the experiments conducted on unwilling human subjects in the camps? That is the moral part of the story. In addition, Geismar left behind in Berlin a married woman with whom he had an affair and wants to know if she is still alive. That's the love part of the story and in Kanon's hands these four threads of this book blend unselfconsciously. His prose is entertaining but not too brisk at the outset. He takes his time developing the stories and their actors. His dialogue is clipped, sparse, and believable, the moral and political ambiguities are neatly plotted and make good drama, the history is accurate and detailed, and he is good at suspense too. In the last 100 pages there is a terrific escape and chase scene - a real white-knuckler. This is a book that just screams movie - and evidently it was made into one, although I haven't seen it. Have any of you?

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