Leaving Berlin

Written by Joseph Kanon
Review by Jeanne Greene

Kanon’s latest thriller (after Istanbul Passage, 2012) takes place in the interstices of World War II and the Cold War. Like all of Germany, Berlin is divided into zones administered by the Allies, but the city itself is in the middle of the Russian sector. Intra-city rivalries for resources, manpower, and, above all, confidential information, are fierce and sometimes deadly.

We see the war-torn city through the eyes of Alex Meier, a Berliner returning for the first time in 15 years. Meier, a successful writer, left Germany while that was still possible. Although welcomed back as a returning exile cum celebrity, he doesn’t plan to stay. Meier’s home is in California with his young son. When he refused to testify against communist sympathizers, however, his residence status was threatened, forcing him bargain with the CIA. After a turn as an Agency spy in Berlin, Meier will be allowed to return to the States for good.

Meier’s literary credentials may open doors for him, but the Russians suspect his American connections, Germans dislike his Jewish name, and the Americans distrust his brand of socialism. When asked to spy on a former lover, Meier is helpless to object, but when he’s deceived by his old friends, so-called allies, and the woman whom he still loves, he knows his life is in danger – but why? And from whom? Meier comes face to face with his real enemy in a dénouement that upturns all of our expectations,

The best scenes in Leaving Berlin are flashbacks to Meier’s early life – glimpses of a younger man and a city unchanged by war – which enlighten the reader and give the novel uncommon depth. Leaving Berlin, one of Joseph Kanon’s best, is highly recommended.