A once great city is levelled by allied bombs, palaces are looted, the blackmarket thrives, and chaos reigns as American and British allies try to restore order. This could easily describe Baghdad in 2003, but it’s Berlin in 1945. If you think that reading an historical novel has no relevance to our lives today, then I suggest you substitute Baghdad for Berlin and Iraqis for Russians and you’ll soon see that this story is timeless.
The Good German, Joseph Kanon’s third novel, is an impressively detailed tome on post-war Germany, weighing in at 482 pages. Don’t let that deter you; this novel is packed with history (the Conference at Potsdam where Churchill, Truman and “Uncle Joe” Stalin divvied up Europe), espionage (Russians, Nazis and Americans) and good old-fashioned romance (think of Rick and Ilsa of Casablanca fame, right down to a teary airport farewell). The thread that holds the storyline together is Jake (Jacob) Geismar, an American journalist who has returned to Germany on assignment from Collier’s. But he has his own agenda: find the woman he loved and left behind before the war.
Kanon is so skillful at redefining evil that your head will be spinning by the time you finish this novel. He clearly believes that context is everything. The title plays a central role in the story: who is “the good German?” Is it Gunther Behn, the WWI decorated soldier and policeman during the Nazi regime who divorced his Jewish wife so he could keep his job? You would probably say “no”, but Gunther uses his detective skills to help hunt down war criminals. Or is it Emil Brandt, the mathematician who is so devoted to his research that he not only foresakes his family and his country but also ignores ethical issues such as good and evil? No one is a clear example of good or evil; every character is complex and multi-dimensional. Although Kanon does throw in some delicious stereotypes - like Liz, the gun-toting, tough-talking photographer, Brian the wry British journalist, and Vassily Sikorsky, the vodka-swigging Russian officer – all are a casting director’s dream. I judge a novel by the emotional effect characters have on me, and I advise you to keep a Kleenex handy (and some Valium) because these folks will raise both your blood pressure and your level of tolerance. Days later I guarantee you will still be thinking of Gunther, Lena, Renate and the phrase “You can do anything for a child.”
Cigarettes play a role too, making many a tobacco company executive smile; everyone smokes, even the kids. Alright, I admit it there were some film noir cliches (drunken Russians, crooked politicians) and I did find a similarity between Jake and Lena’s Casablanca-like romance, but the romance is secondary to the main story. A mini-“Judgement at Nurnberg” trial takes place, and be warned - it is chilling.
The line between good and evil is drawn in pencil, and Kanon takes great pleasure in redrawing that line every few pages. This device keeps both the reader and the characters fresh and alive; there is no complacency allowed here. Even our hero, Jake, has to wrestle with his own demons. He discovers that his search for his lost love, Lena, has inadvertently set off a chain of murders, coverups, and scandal. Appearances are deceiving, miscommunication leads to tragedy, greed thrives and treachery lurks around every rubbled corner.