Review: Leaving Berlin

leaving berlinFinished Leaving Berlin late one night.  It’s a good book for me, because it is a great story with a strong underpinning in history.  Kanon is a great writer, I think that’s well known, but this was the first book I had read by him.  It’s a great story driven along by a highly-readable use of dialogue, which I wrote about in a previous post.

One thing that was really interesting was that the main character (Alex Meier) is a writer.  As you know, I don’t do plot summaries here, but he is a Communist who left to flee the Nazis and then after the war had to flee the US due to the Red Scare.  So, he’s in Communist Berlin now.

Like all spy stories, everything is a shadow.  You don’t know who is your enemy and who is your friend, and you don’t know what’s true and what isn’t.  People are all reacting to different information, some right and some wrong.

The fascinating twist on that old formula is that the protagonist, in this case, is a writer–a fiction writer.  We see him employing his storytelling skills to survive in a world of spies and in a surveillance society.  He’s got a gift for it.  He knows what people know, what motivates them, what they are likely to think when they heard something, what they would be likely to do in a certain situation.  These are all skills that writers have, and he uses them to be the chess master of the situation, just as he would have in his own novels.

(You wonder about this….whether the CIA or KGB ever thought of having fiction writers come up with the false narratives that might move a real-life spy situation.)

The other very powerful part of this book is the sense of the claustrophobia of living in a surveillance state.  To me, this is relevant to the world we live in today.  When I talk to people about the right to privacy and the importance of the keeping the government out of our emails, mail and phone calls, I often hear that they don’t mind people in their emails because they have “nothing to hide.”

When you read Leaving Berlin, you get a great sense of why that’s not the right way to think.  You understand how it is to live when everyone is watching…when helping your own brother could get you killed, for example.  There’s a cascading effect, too.  Once a certain mass of people are watching and informing, you might as well have everyone doing it.  When you take a walk, people watch.  Where’s he going?  How is he seeing?  Why would he be walking now?

It’s literally palpable when you read this book.  There can be no liberty at all when the government can know everything we do.  It isn’t about having things to hide.

This book is highly recommended.  It was listed among on the New York Times, NPR and Wall Street Journal books of the year for 2015 and deserves its place on those lists.

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