Saturday, 4 July 2015

Crossing Moral Boundaries in the Historical Mysteries of Joseph Kanon

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large and I have reproduced it on this site because the thread that unites his novel, moral transgression, is the central theme of the two volumes of That Line of Darkness (Encompass Editions)

Novelist Joseph Kanon. (Photo by Axel Dupeux)

Joseph Kanon, the former publishing executive, has demonstrated two great strengths in his novels: his capacity for providing a textured atmospheric backdrop to his murder mysteries populated by both historical and fictional characters, and his ability to convey to readers the pressing moral questions of the moment. In his seven novels, the setting for at least part of each novel has been between 1945 and 1950 where the unresolved issues of World War II are played out.


In his debut novel Los Alamos (1997), Kanon is better at capturing the historical milieu than exploring moral conundrums. It takes place in a remote New Mexico hilltop near Santa Fe where the scientists of the Manhattan Project, under the project director Robert Oppenheimer, are developing the atom bomb during the closing months of the war. General Leslie Groves, who is responsible for security, calls upon a civilian intelligence officer, Michael Connolly, to investigate the violent death of Karl Bruner, a security officer. Whether his demise is the result of a homosexual encounter that went badly or is related to security, the Army is unsure. Since we historically know that the Project was infiltrated by two Soviet spies, most notably the British physicist Klaus Fuchs who passed to his Soviet handlers detailed information regarding the atomic weapons’ design, we can be certain that espionage is at the core of this novel, particularly since the dead man was a German émigré, persecuted by the Nazis and tortured by the Soviets.

Apart from the mystery that is grippingly narrated and a predictable love affair between Connolly and the wife of one of the scientists, the most interesting facets of the novel are Kanon’s accounts of the desert and the isolation of those who are working on the Project. Officially everyone is a “ghost” in which the only communication with the outside world is a post office address in Santa Fe. Apart from the news of Roosevelt’s death, the end of the war in Europe and a Life issue that reveals the first images of the Nazi camps, little of what happens elsewhere filters into their self-contained world of work and recreation. Kanon’s decision to end the novel before the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan is I think unfortunate because we are deprived of the grayer ethical complexities that the historical Oppenheimer confronted. Instead, because of the demands of a thriller, we are left only with the question of treason – the merit or condemnation of sharing information with a dubious ally – which for the characters and most readers will be more a black-and-white issue.

The beginning of Kanon’s second novel The Prodigal Spy (1998) is set in 1950 where the House Un-American Activities Committee accuses Walter Kotlar, a State Department official, of being a Communist spy. His ten-year-old Nick and his nanny go to the movies and see his father on the big screen newsreel being interrogated by a bully Congressman. As it turns out, Kotlar is not innocent even though the information he gave the Soviets was unclassified and inconsequential. But the effect of witnessing his father being grilled leaves short and long term effects on Nick. When the young woman who testified against Kotlar leaps out or is pushed out a window, and Kotlar himself decamps to Moscow, Nick lies to the police and destroys evidence to protect his father. Two decades later, as an aimless Vietnam vet and graduate student living in London, Nick begins to search for answers. At an anti-Vietnam rally, he receives a mysterious invitation from his ill father, now living in Czechoslovakia who wants to see Nick. In Prague, Nick learns that his father was framed for the murder, wants to return home and is willing to offer the name of a more powerful spy who still has cache in Washington. Unsurprisingly, Walter is murdered before he can reveal that name in the same manner as the store clerk years earlier. After a harrowing escape out of Czechoslovakia, Nick returns home to ruthlessly pursue and cross any boundary to unmask the spy and murderer.

Again the mystery in The Prodigal Spy is secondary to the historical atmosphere and moral dilemmas that Kanon evokes initially in McCarthyite America, then the repressive post-Dubcek Prague a year after Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring, and finally in Nixon’s America where the head of the FBI, Edgar Hoover, makes a cynical appearance. Kanon’s rich sense of history is evident in his knowledge of the Czech method of dispatching an enemy through defenestration – hurling a person out a window – a technique used by American Communists in this novel and one that he deploys later in Stardust (2009). Perhaps the most moral character in the novel is the Czech policeman, Zimmerman, who must perform a balancing act between accommodating his Communist superiors and pursing justice. He explains to Nick the closed (at least until the Soviets leave) investigation into the murder of the principled non-Communist Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk, who was a victim of defenestration in the late 1940s, and Zimmerman takes great risks to help Nick flee from Prague when the Communists are looking for him.

Venice is more than the setting for Alibi (2005); it is almost a character with its buildings, canals and piazzas, the Accademia, the ghetto in Cannaregio, the gondolas, La Fenice. Spared physical damage during the war, the time is now early 1946 where the hatreds between fascists and partisans still rage on diminishing any sense of right and wrong. Kanon's narrator, Adam Miller, just released from the American Army where he has been investigating war crimes, initially sees none of this while visiting his widowed socialite mother in Venice who is being courted by the suave, aristocratic Dr. Gianni Maglione. At a party, Adam meets a beautiful young Jewish woman, Claudia Grassini, who turns out to be a survivor of the concentration camp at Fossoli, where she was coerced into being "the camp whore." She is convinced that Maglione was a Fascist collaborator who helped the SS round up Jews – and was directly responsible for sending her father to his death. Adam already has his own suspicions about him believing him to be a fortune hunter after his mother's wealth. Initially, it appears to be a simple matter for Adam: expose the complicity of the doctor and justice will be served. Then a grisly murder occurs. From then on, the moral dilemma of the novel becomes how a people should behave when an enemy controls it and whether murder is justified in the aftermath. Adam slowly recognizes the moral murkiness that pervades the city. As the police inspector tells him, "You know, Signor Miller, everyone worked for the Germans. We don't like to say that now, but what could we do? This was an occupied country" and "People do things to survive. So we must give them the benefit of the doubt." More than Kanon’s previous novels, he explores ethical quandaries that are steeped in ambiguity.

In Stardust (2009) the setting is Hollywood 1945 after the end of the war. The novel is populated with both starlets – among them Paulette Goddard and Greer Garson – and members of the German emigre community that include Thomas and Heinrich Mann and Bertolt Brecht. The former are there to enhance the period atmospherics while the latter group is more important to the plot. Ben Collier, on leave from the U.S. Signal Corps, meets Sol Lasner, head of Continental Pictures on a cross-country train ride to Los Angeles. Ben pitches and receives approval for a documentary about the concentration camps using footage he captured on assignment. But Ben's more urgent mission in Hollywood is to reach the hospital bedside of his brother Danny. A director at Republic Pictures, he lies near death after falling from the balcony of the Cherokee Hotel. Soon after Ben arrives, Danny dies. The police report states that he jumped. But Ben insists that Danny would never have committed suicide, and indeed he later learns that the report covered up the truth: Danny had been pushed. Soon after, Ben hears another disturbing piece of news: Danny, who had helped Jews escape Hitler's forces, has been informing on colleagues the FBI suspected were communists. Did someone fearing exposure enter the hotel and killed him? To find out whom Danny might have spied on, Ben agrees to ferret out suspected communists for California Congressman Ken Minot, who is spoiling to expose reds in the film industry.

This plot summary may appear to be the setup for a standard Hollywood noir thriller, but Kanon is offering something far more intriguing. First, he deliberately stages in 1945 a HUAC-like spirited exchange between Minot and Lasner with often hilarious moments. The whole episode is completely fictional since it occurs two years before HUAC began its investigation into communists in the Hollywood film industry and all the studio heads who historically testified were friendly witnesses. More importantly, Ben finds out that his brother was feeding Minot false or inconsequential material to make the Committee look ridiculous. What I think Kanon is suggesting, that becomes clearer as the plot races to its conclusion, is that the hearings were a smokescreen for concealing what communist spies were really interested in – acquiring as much technical information as they could about the building of atomic weapons – the premise behind Los Alamos.

Moral ambiguities are central to Istanbul Passage (2012), set during and immediately after the war. Istanbul officially was neutral during the war but a hotbed for spies, a topic explored by British writers such as Eric Ambler in Journey Into Fear and Graham Greene in Stamboul Train. The protagonist is Leon Bauer who is running spy missions under the cover of a U.S. tobacco-importing business. The city is also the site for illegally transporting to Palestine European Jewish refugees who survived the Holocaust. Anna, Leon’s wife, a German Jew, once arranged such a passage, but now in 1945 she exists only in an uncommunicative, trauma-induced catatonic state, having witnessed hundreds of bodies wash ashore after an overloaded ship sank in the harbor. Leon is known for his ability to navigate the city, a fact that is intricately woven into the plot when he has to hide a Romanian defector, Alexei, a one-time member of the fascist Iron Guard who may have played a role in the heinous slaughter of Jews from Bucharest at Straulesti, an episode that is vividly and powerfully described. But the Americans want access to him because he can provide valuable information about Russian intelligence. To further complicate his life, Bauer is being pursued by the brutal Turkish secret police, the Emniyet, after having shot rather than getting shot by his duplicitous supervisor, the same person who gave him the assignment, in a tense late-night encounter along the river. He learns that the cost of crossing moral boundaries is to be forced to cross even more of them. This mission leads Bauer to ask: “What do you do when there is no right thing to do?" His answer appears to be that he will do whatever he can to save the repugnant Alexei because he gave his word that he would and hold on to whatever is left of his moral compass.

I skipped over The Good German (2001) because it makes a good companion to his most recent entry, Leaving Berlin (Atria Books, 2015). They are both set in Berlin, the former in 1945 and the latter in 1949. Physically nothing seems to have changed. In The Good German, the journalist, Jake Geismar, is flying into Berlin,
Jake looked down at the ground […]. Why hadn’t anyone told him? He had seen bombed cities before […] but nothing on this scale […]. Shells of houses, empty as ransacked tombs, miles and miles of them, whole pulverized stretches where there were not even walls […] landmarks had disappeared under shifting dunes of rubble […]. A beige cloud hung over everything – not smoke, a thick haze of soot and plaster dust, as if the houses could not quite bring themselves to leave. But Berlin was gone.
In Leaving Berlin, Kanon writes: “Standing walls were pockmarked by shelling, marooned in empty spaces where buildings had collapsed, leaving gaps for the wind to rush through. The streets had been cleared but were still lined on either side with piles of brick and smashed porcelain and twisted metal. Even the smell of bombing […] was still in the air.” In both novels, the physical desolation is also a metaphor for the moral morass that has engulfed the city.

In The Good German, Jake is in Berlin to cover the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945. While there an American serviceman’s body is discovered and Jake has a second task. Yet neither he nor Kanon is really interested in these subjects. Jake is more keen on tracking down Lena, with whom he had an affair before the war. When he sees her, she appears as “a gaunt woman with stringy hair, sickbed pale, another ruin” trying to survive as a prostitute. Like Berlin, Lena Brandt is wasted, a shell, almost gone, ravaged by rapes and who almost died from the after effects of an abortion. Lena’s fate is similar to the female protagonist in Leaving Berlin, Irene von Bernuth, the survivor of a gang rape by Russian troops who has become the mistress of a Soviet State Security operative. She too is beloved by the central character, Alex Meier. (The portrayal of both damaged women seems to have been inspired by Kanon’s reading of the journalist Marta Hillers whose memoir,A Woman in Berlin, covers a three-month period in the spring of 1945 during the liberation of Berlin and its occupation by the Red Army. The writer describes the widespread rapes by Soviet soldiers, including her own, and the women's pragmatic approach to survival, often taking Soviet officers for protection. The book was adapted as a German feature film in 2008 starring Nina Hoss.) 

The two other interconnected issues in The Good German that Kanon explores are the need to prosecute war criminals, including scientists, such as Lena Brandt’s husband who worked at a rocket site where the systematic starvation of slave labour occurred, and the role of American politicians who wanted the Occupation to serve America’s economic and strategic interests. That meant acquiring German technical and scientific equipment before they were captured by the Soviets and assisting scientists by evacuating them from Germany so that they could work for American corporations. Serving America’s needs also required downplaying the de-Nazification program that avoided in the words of one politician, “wasting our time by looking for Nazis under every bed.” Kanon allows both perspectives plenty of space, but it is not difficult to perceive which view will take priority. Think of the 1961 film Judgement at Nuremberg. 

In Stardust, a minor character, a German émigré, receives an offer from the Soviets to return to Germany and be part of the effort to create an anti-fascist state. The germ of that idea is fully developed inLeaving Berlin. The backdrop is the Berlin airlift while Soviet and Western spies circle one another in the ruins of the defeated Nazis’ capital, recruiting informants and on the Soviet side, enforcers. Into this volatile environment stumbles Alex Meier, a German-Jewish socialist who escaped to Los Angeles before the Holocaust and became a renowned novelist. Swept up by the Red Scare for his leftist politics, Meier refused to name names before a Congressional committee, a principled decision that has cost him his marriage, cut him off from his 10-year-old son and turned him from celebrity author into a pariah facing jail or deportation. Making a desperate deal with the Central Intelligence Agency, Meier agrees to return to Berlin as a spy. His cover story is that he is homesick and wishes to participate in the cultural renaissance in Soviet-occupied eastern sector alongside other preeminent writers such as Berthold Brecht and lend the Communist regime his voice. (Kanon’s acidic portrait of the cynical Brecht is dead-on as the German dramatist is willing to turn a blind eye to Soviet abuses if it will help him stage his plays: “Sometimes you have to work with things as they are,” he tells Meier, justifying his decision to participate in a radio interview denouncing capitalism: “We’re artists. We accommodate. We survive.”) It’s hardly an offer Meier can refuse once the CIA promises that in exchange for a little information gathering he can eventually return to the U.S. and his young son. Sounds good, nothing too demanding or risk-taking but as expected things go very wrong. 

Berlin is far more dangerous than CIA officials conveyed to him in America. When he arrives, one of his handlers informs him that the place is like Dodge City with no restraints on violence. Soon afterwards, this agent is killed. Before dying, he tells Alex that he must undertake an act that is necessary if he is to survive in this urban jungle, and Alex complies. Perhaps his survivor instincts kick in but there is no indication that Alex is anything other than a naïve amateur. Unlike the protagonists in the novels of John le Carré or Charles McCarry, he has not acquired training either in the use of firearms or in the art of spycraft and yet in both skills he acquits himself over the course of the novel so well that it suspends belief, at least for this reader. Nonetheless, once he has crossed a moral line, it becomes less difficult the next time. Even when Alex is coerced into agreeing to spy for the emerging German secret state, in effect being a double agent, he handles himself with confidence. More plausible is the remarkable courage he demonstrates to repay a debt he owes to Irene’s late father, a Prussian aristocrat, who used his influence to free him from a Nazi concentration camp. Alex risks everything by caring for Irene’s brother, Erich, who shows up having escaped slave labor in the uranium mines, the existence of which is a state secret. He arranges for Erich to give a taped radio interview and facilitates his escape from Berlin. And he is able to expose further duplicity, always trusting his instincts on whether he can trust another person, including officials from Western agencies. Given his experience with Soviet and German Communists, Alex’s political maturity is also credible. At one point, he dismisses the belief that the Communists are no different from HUAC committee members, something he would not have done early on in the novel. His deeper insight into the realities of a Stalinist state – become an informer or pay the consequences – and fast learning in this treacherous world makes for an engrossing read. Like so many of Kanon’s previous novels, it is a fascinating exploration of transgressing moral boundaries. Unlike them, however, his protagonist, Alex, seems not to have wrestled with or lost any of his humanity.

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