The story then moves forward to Brandenburg in 1993. The Berlin Wall has fallen, and many of the former GDR’s citizens resent the way in which their history is being written by West Germans, or ‘Wessies’. Michael Ritter, an English language teacher and a published author of a collection of short stories, ‘Workers’ Dawn’, is informed that his teaching contract won’t be renewed, largely in part because Ritter was a former Party member in the GDR and is seen as politically suspect in the newly unified Germany. Ritter has long detested the Westernisation of the former East Germany, and particularly the crass commercialism that has colonised his country, and his sacking only confirms his prejudices. Shortly afterwards, Ritter’s mother dies, sending Ritter off on a search for a Pastor Bruck of Bad Saarow with her dying words, which suggest that Pastor Bruck will be able to shed some light on the identity of the father Ritter has never known. Michael’s quest sends us back in time to 1962, when the novel takes on some of the tropes of the classic Cold War spy novel.
This, the middle section of the novel, is why THE BERLIN CROSSING is being pitched in certain quarters as a thriller of the Le Carré variety, but I think it will become quickly obvious to any fan of the classic spy thrillers that that’s not the kind of novel Brophy had in mind. Certainly, he seems more than happy to play with the tropes and conventions of the spy novel - the secret service ‘spooks’ in London recruiting unwilling spies via blackmail; the East Berlin setting; the secretive missions, false identities and ‘dead letter’ drops; the sense of claustrophobia and paranoia - but any fan of Le Carré, Ambler et al will be underwhelmed by THE BERLIN CROSSING as a spy novel.
For one thing, only the middle section, or ‘book’, can be considered a spy thriller. Secondly, and despite Brophy’s ability to recreate both a relatively modern Germany and its Cold War counterpart in East Berlin, the story does lack that quality of under-the-skin paranoia and claustrophobia that the great thriller writers bring to their work. It’s also true that there’s a lack of plausibility about the events that transpire in East Germany that would be highly unusual among the best practitioners of the spy novel.
By the same token, I did get the impression that Brophy was incorporating these tropes into a novel that has other fish to fry. THE BERLIN CROSSING is, I think, fundamentally a novel about identity, and an individual’s attempt to find his place in a ceaselessly changing world. This search for identity is bound up in a love story set against the Cold War backdrop; it’s fair to say, I think, that the romantic aspect of the novel is equally, if not more, important to Brophy as the spy novel aspect.
Michael Ritter is a fascinating character for his take on the East German experience of the newly unified Germany in 1992. It’s far more common to read of former East Germans who were terrorised and tortured, physically and / or psychologically, during this period of Germany’s history. Ritter, however, is proudly East German; he defends the GDR’s reputation and the means used to protect the country against its aggressors. Moreover, he’s disgusted by the blatant inequality caused by the influx of capital into East Germany.
Equally interesting is the minor character of Pastor Bruck, whose presence pervades the novel like no other character apart from Michael Ritter himself. As a confirmed socialist and patriotic East German, Michael is suspicious of religion as the opium of the masses when he first meets the Pastor in Bad Saarow:
He and his kind had won; his miserable stained glass was a symbol not of survival but of loss. I could feel the hate welling inside me, inside the regret, boiling over it, swallowing the regret, swallowing me. I hated this grey cleric, this grey stone building. (pg 45)Soon, however, Michael is grudgingly accepting the sacrifice Pastor Bruck has made on behalf of his own family (the pastor has had his back broken by the Stasi). Later, Michael comes to realise that it is the Pastor’s Christian instinct that allows him to help Roland to escape from the Stasi in East Berlin. While Michael doesn’t become a convert to religion, he does come to accept the parallels between the Christian philosophy and the all-for-one basic tenet of his cherished socialism.
There’s also a neat dovetailing between the religious aspect to the novel and that of its form as a kind of spy novel, given that the spy novel is generally about peeling back layers of deceit to get at a fundamental truth. Twice Brophy cites Pontius Pilate before Christ, the first being in the words of Pastor Bruck:
‘The old question, Herr Ritter.’ The smile almost sorrowful. ‘What is truth?’ And two thousand years after Pilate, we still cannot answer it.’ (pg 51, italics Brophy’s)In the latter stages of the novel, Pilate’s enquiry after truth is again cited, which suggests that Brophy wants to emphasise this particular point.
Ultimately, Kevin Brophy has delivered an intriguing novel about identity that is loosely swaddled in the trappings of the spy novel. - Declan Burke