The Good German
© 2001 Joseph Kanon
Berlin, summer 1945. The heart of the most infamous empire in history lies in ruins, battered by bombs and ravaged block by block by Russian artillery. Its contents sacked and its people abused by the victorious Soviet army, nothing remains but rubble, piles of bodies, and broken spirits. The allies of World War 2 are meeting for the Potsdam conference, but such a story is not the reason why reporter Jacob Gesimar has come. Gesimar lived in Berlin years ago, before war forced him to exit, and he visits the sad metropolis not to gloat in victory or take in the spectre like a tourist, but to look for the girl he left behind. In the opening ours of the conference, an American body washes up on a Berlin lakeshore — the body of a man alive only hours before, who stood beside Gesimar as they flew into Berlin together. One man’s death is of no interest to the allies, but Gesimar works to solve the mystery of it by himself — if nothing else, there’s a story to be had.
The Good German is a busy novel, for the man’s death is not an isolated incident. More will follow, and as Geismar continues to work his way through an intelligence network of retired Berlin cops and black marketeers, he begins to realize there is a story of international proportions building around him — the start of another war, and he may perish with its opening shots. The “busy-ness” intensifies throughout the novel: plot twists and general action multiply with every chapter, but Joseph Kanon is spinning another mystery besides, having Gesimar ask more questions: how could the beloved Berlin of his youth have given itself over to be Hitler’s capital? How could his neighbors, good people all, become Nazis and willing participants in one of the most horrific exercises in human history, the Holocaust? The questions lie over the setting like a cloud of dust, ever-haunting Jacob and the reader, especially once multiple plot threads converge and those questions become personal.
The Good German is definitely readable: the immediate postwar setting is unique. I don’t know of any other novels which take place so soon after the peace: Berlin is literally lying in ruins, and the Allies are only just organizing their occupation. It’s depressing, but more depressing is the fact that such savagery could rise in Germany, the land of “poets, thinkers, and storytellers”: barbarism from civilization. The novel was best when Jacob grappled with these questions, as he did throughout. The bulk of the novel is its mystery, which turns the novel into an action-thriller by the end, but it grew so complicated that I lost interest. The plot of a novel is almost like a musical piece: there are various elements at work — some subtle, some obvious — and pacing is critical. As the plot grows, the number of elements at play multiplies, and a good thriller may read like a jazz piece sounds — intense, active, exciting. The Good German was so over-busy, though, that it seemed like noise by the time I was finished. I would still recommend it for the reflective aspects, however.