TODAY, THURSDAY June 21, sees the publication of the trade paperback edition of Galway writer Kevin Brophy’s much-praised novel of love and espionage, The Berlin Crossing.
The Guardian declared the book to be “fresh, and psychologically intriguing…its humanity, attention to period detail, and sheer guts will win you over. In the end, this is a story about reconciliation, not just between the former east and west, but between the lies of dogma and the real lives of others who turn out to be us”.
After a short prologue set at the Berlin Wall in 1962, the novel proper opens in Brandenburg 1993: the Wall is down, Germany is reunified but 30-year-old East German school teacher Michael Ritter feels his life is falling apart. His wife has thrown him out, his new West German headmaster has fired him for being a former SED Party member, and he is still clinging on to the wreckage of the state that shaped him.
Feeling angry and lost, Michael heads home to care for his terminally ill mother. Before she dies, she urges him to seek out an obscure village priest, Pastor Bruck, who is the only one who knows the truth about Michael’s father.
Michael eventually tracks the pastor down, which starts him off on a journey of dark discoveries, one which will shatter his foundations, but ultimately bring him hope to rebuild them. The story switches between Berlin, London, and Galway as Michael traces the lifeline of his Irish father and uncovers the story of how he had been a pawn in the deadly Cold War game of espionage between East and West.
One notable aspect of the novel is the way it vividly portrays the sense of grievance and resentment East Germans like Michael felt about the reunification process. It is a picture that kicks against the familiar Western-slanted image of the sundered German nation being made whole again and the blessings of democracy being restored to the benighted East.
As someone who lived and worked in Germany as a teacher, Brophy personally observed this sense of disaffection.
“When I was teaching there, about 15 years ago, no-one would be quick to admit they had been card-carrying members of the Party,” Brophy tells me over an afternoon coffee. “However as I got to know some of them better they would tell me. They weren’t happy about how reunification had panned out.
“One student of mine, her husband had been a senior regional town planner but now he was unemployed simply because he was tainted by having been a member of the Party. And in the East you weren’t going to get anywhere career-wise without being a Party member. There were a lot of casualties of reunification like that, people who were displaced.
“The reunification process happened pretty much as Michael described in the novel. There was money pouring into the East from Bonn but then there were loads of cronies from Bonn and the rest of the West going over to collect the loot as well, as Michael describes them they were like carpetbaggers.
“Now I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t glad the Wall came down but quite a few people would have liked there to have been another way of going about things afterward. And when the Wall came down it wasn’t immediately certain that the country would be re-unified – Maggie Thatcher for one didn’t want it to happen.”
Aside from its vein of keen social and historical observation the book also succeeds as a gripping spy thriller. The Guardian review likens it to John Le Carré, and Brophy is more than happy to acknowledge that source of inspiration.
“I think John Le Carré is the greatest writer in the language in the second half of the past century, he’s my favourite writer!” he declares.
The latest edition of The Berlin Crossing should firmly consolidate the success it has already met with since its initial publication in January of this year. Looking further ahead, all going well, January 2013 should see the publication of Brophy’s next novel, Another Kind of Country.
“It’s a more completely German book than Berlin Crossing,” he reveals. “It takes place against the background of the life of the Wall. It’s more of a political thriller.”
While readers can look forward to Brophy’s new novel in due course, The Berlin Crossing is available from all good bookshops at €9.99.