Sunday 22 January 2017

Review: Fiction: The Berlin Crossing by Kevin Brophy

Headline Review, £12.99
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John Boland on an ambitious debut set before the collapse of the Berlin Wall

Published 22/01/2012 | 06:00

Kevin Brophy's first novel begins in the recently liberated East Germany of the early 1990s and ends in Galway a year later, although the main action takes place three decades earlier in a country divided by the newly constructed Berlin Wall.

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When we encounter the embittered Michael Ritter in 1993, he's just been sacked from his teaching post in Brandenburg for excessive loyalty to a dismantled and discredited communist regime and is further disturbed by his mother's deathbed revelation that his father was not the man he had always supposed.

This leads him to pursue some tantalising information she's given him and it leads the reader to the main body of the novel, in which Michael's real father -- the Galway-born son of German parents -- is recruited by shadowy forces in the British secret service to conduct a dangerous mission on the wrong side of Checkpoint Charlie.

There are distinct echoes in this 200-page central narrative of the shadowy, sinister world evoked in John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold; while one of the crucial characters, imperious former war-hero Robert Fitch-Bellingham, could have come straight out of one of the British spy writer's more playful later novels. That said, Le Carré would have rejected his eccentric recruiting methods -- hanging around London police stations late at night in search of suitably vulnerable "volunteers" -- as too implausible.

That, alas, is the case with much of this book, which also relies on the most threadbare tropes of Cold War fiction to further its action and which reduces nearly all its characters to one-dimensional stereotypes -- not least the villainously unpleasant Stasi officer Markus Fuchs, who's like a cartoon version of the central character in the 2006 film The Lives Of Others.

The central love affair between Michael's mother and the amateur espionage agent from Galway is clichéd, too -- "My Irish poet" and "My German goddess" were two of their murmured blandishments.

And Michael himself, who narrates the first hundred pages, voices an anger at new-found political and social freedoms that seems quite inexplicable in an educated 30-year-old.

(In an end-note, the author, who has taught in Germany, recalls meeting former GDR party members who felt spurned by their "new" country but Michael's grievances seem less a part of his character than imposed by the author).

At the end of this ambitious but overlong novel, the west of Ireland enables Michael to achieve a psychological and emotional resolution of sorts, and to find love in the process; while Major Fuchs is given his chance of redemption, too -- but that only serves to remind the reader of the far more powerful coda to The Lives Of Others. Perhaps in his next book, the author will have found his own novelistic voice.

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