Last year was a good one for Galway author Kevin Brophy with his Cold War thriller The Berlin Crossing garnering considerable critical acclaim. Now he follows that novel with a further foray into the murky world of East-West skulduggery and intrigue, in the newly published Another Kind Of Country.
Much of the action of Another Kind Of Country unfolds in East Berlin where English expat Patrick Miller has ‘crossed over’ and is working at the Secretariat for Socialist Correctness in Publishing.
Dragged into a dangerous, cynical, world of shady dealings on both sides of the Wall, Patrick no longer knows what political creed he believes in. Then he meets Rosa Rossman, a Chilean who fled to East Germany after her parents were killed in the coup which overthrew President Allende.
Separate currents of the 20th century have washed Patrick and Rosa up in a divided city that, despite everything, both of them have come to love. Then, as the Soviet Union starts to break up around them, the tide of change is too strong for even the much feared Stasi to hold back. But once the barriers are down and the rubble cleared, what kind of country will they be left with?
Another Kind Of Country is an absorbing novel in which Brophy skilfully blends the twin worlds of Cold War double dealing with the burgeoning human relationship between Patrick and Rosa. It seems certain to build on the success and recognition Brophy gained from The Berlin Crossing.
Schoolbooks and Wolves
Over a Monday afternoon coffee in the pleasant milieu of the House Hotel, Brophy met with me to talk about his latest work and his writing career to date.
Another Kind Of Country is his fourth published novel, with his first one, Almost Heaven, appearing in 1997. His first published works however were a series of school textbooks, as Brophy, a former teacher, reveals as he talks about his background.
“I grew up in Renmore, and went to school in the Bish, then UCG,” he tells me. “After leaving college I worked as a teacher here in Ireland and in the UK. I was asked to write some schoolbooks and I wrote seven or eight, I did books for English and Civics, which was one of my degree subjects.
“Those books were very lucrative, they were much more profitable than that [here, Brophy gestures to the copy of his novel on the table between us]. One of the nonsense things that goes on in this country is that some schoolbook writers actually get the artists’ tax exemption. Textbooks do have to be crafted, you have to know your job to write them but there’s no artistic creativity about them.”
Aside from the textbooks, Brophy’s first literary publication was his autobiographical memoir Walking the Line; Scenes from an Army Childhod which was published in 1994. A few years later he published another non-fiction work, In The Company of Wolves, which chronicled a season following Wolverhampton Wanderers.
“I first started following Wolves in the 1950s when themselves and Manchester United were the two dominant teams,” he tells me. “Then in early 1998 I had a chat with my patient agent - who has made no money out of me until Berlin Crossing. I said I wouldn’t mind doing a book on Wolves and we pitched it at Mainstream Publishing who were one of the main football book publishers.
“They said ‘Yes’ and gave me a small advance which covered the cost of me taking a flat and living in Wolverhampton for the year. The book is a football record cum memoir of my time there. I got a flat near the ground. A lot of people will tell you Wolverhampton is a hick town but I loved the place. The book focuses on the season 1998/1999, it was Robbie Keane’s first season and Steve Bull’s last one.”
Cold War Germany
While it was the 1990s that Brophy finally made his publishing breakthrough, writing had been a part of his life since childhood; “I’ve been writing ever since I was 10,” he recalls. “I christened The Bish Bombshell magazine while I was there and I edited Unity and Criterion in UCG. In my time you couldn’t just come out of college, be a writer, get dole, and rent allowance, so I got a job after leaving and that’s the way I think it should be.”
Both of Brophy’s most recent novels vividly evoke the sense of place of Cold War-era Germany and draw on his own experience of living and working in the country.
“I was in Germany a few times in the 1980s at book fairs in places like Frankfurt but even though I was on German territory I wasn’t really in Germany, at these fairs everyone speaks English,” he observes. “So I was at these book fairs but I never really experienced anything of Germany proper.
“I didn’t really experience the country until I started teaching there. In the mid-nineties I switched career and started teaching English to foreigners and I loved doing that. I think if I had stumbled upon that as a job after I first left college I’d never have left it, I’d probably never even have written a book! You’d be mixing and chatting with the students you were teaching and that was when I started to get a sight of what Germany was really like.”
Brophy developed a deep fondness for both the country and its people.
“In teaching English to foreign students the thrust of the job is to get them to talk, and it’s easiest to get them talking about themselves and their families and their jobs and so on,” he says. “I got to like the Germans, I felt they’re more upfront than the Irish are, I don’t think they bullshit as much as we do, they don’t fabricate things like we do, or embellish them, they’re more honest than we are I think.
“I also taught in East Germany after reunification. With a class full of East Germans you could chat to them about, they’d make fun of the old country but still have a nostalgic feel for it.”
It was that sense of seeing a country’s faults but still being attached to it that has informed the world of Another Kind of Country.
“Patrick Miller is not a local and even though he knows everything that is wrong with the place he still loves it and that kind of thing interests me, not just the good guys v bad guys scenario, that’s childish stuff,” Brophy states.
“Where there is a conflict in a person, they are the things I like. It’s not a black-and-white thing where you simply say ‘East Germany is bad’. I was interested in the idea of how these people cope. East Germany was different from all the other Soviet bloc countries insofar as they voted themselves out of existence. In modern Germany for example you aren’t allowed to use your ranks from the old East German armed forces whereas you can continue to be referred to as general if you fought for Hitler’s Wehrmacht.”