Just Finished Reading: The Good German by Joseph Kanon (FP: 2001)
Berlin, 1945. After a 4 year absence embedded Army reporter Jake Geismar (played by George Clooney in the 2006 movie adaptation) is back looking for a last story before returning state side and also looking for Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett) an ex-lover from happier times. But post-war Berlin is a very different city than he remembers. So different in fact that without many of the previous landmarks he gets lost more often than not in areas he used to know his way around blindfolded. With the conference to decide the fate of the future world in full swing Jake stumbles upon a dead GI carrying a large amount of Russian issued money. But the place and circumstances of the death aren’t what interests Jake – it’s the fact than no one wants to know what happened and before Jake can start digging the body is recovered from the Russian sector and flown home to the US. Not one to be told what to investigate Jake starts to use his knowledge of the city and his natural command of the language to ask questions and to become a serious pain in the Army’s ass. The more Jake digs the worse the story gets – from the ever present Black Market, to widespread prostitution, asset stripping on an industrial scale, whitewashing of severely tarnished reputations, recollections of Holocaust survivors and the growing appreciation that some Germans, the ‘Good’ ones, are worth almost any price and any fudging of the past, if they are willing to help defend the US in a future war with the Soviets. Jake has other ideas and is willing to put everything on the line – even his own life – to expose the cynical manoeuvring of politicians and businessmen who want to forget about the past and a crime so big that no one is responsible for it.
I was impressed by this author before I read this book but this really knocked it out of the park for me. Gripping from the outset this is an often harrowing story of what people will do and what they will turn a blind eye to in order to survive in extreme times. Overflowing with great characters, not least of which is Jake himself who is amazing, this delves into what must have been a truly horrible period in German history as the country was pounded into rubble, invaded and occupied and then picked over by the victors. I doubt if anyone could come out of that period smelling of roses and no one smelt anything like that – even the good Germans often mentioned throughout the novel – much to Jakes amazement and disgust: Police investigators who continued to work for the regime even after their Jewish wife was sent to a concentration camp, Jews hiding from the Gestapo who offered to find others to keep themselves or family members out of trouble and scientists, aiming at the stars whilst designing weapons assembled by slave labour. There are no clean hands here, there are victims and the victims of victims all struggling to live with what they have done and what they have witnessed.
This is most definitely not a book for the faint of heart. There’s some violence and the odd bit of swearing and some sex but it’s the underlying themes – especially those around the Holocaust – that really get under your skin and eat their way deep into your consciousness. Some of the stories – most probably true though, I suspect rather toned down, are disturbing enough to be borderline stomach turning. This is not puerile ‘shock’ tactics though, not faux horror to titillate the comfortable. This is the disturbing thought that, in these circumstances we, with all of our fine morality, could have done these things too. The dialogue here is some of the best I’ve read in years, crisp, powerful, realistic and riveting. I learnt so much from this book and had so many more questions at the end of it that I’m just going to have to research this element of European history much more. I’m sure that the reality will be even more fascinating than even this most excellent novel. Most highly recommended.