Brophy, Kevin - 'The Berlin Crossing'
"Once more the priest looked at the small picture of my mother and me. An image from a lost time. A fair-haired young woman who seemed almost to be trying not to smile, a serious-faced youngster trying to live up to the cap and uniform of his Socialist Boy Scouts. The wheezy breathing of Pastor Bruck and the irregular clicking noise of the small electric heater. And my own heartbeat, loud in my head, waiting for this old fellow to speak of my past."
It is 1993 in what was formerly East Germany. Michael Ritter is 30 years old with a Doctorate in English and teaches at a Brandenburg school. But as a card-carrying Party member in the days of the GDR, Ritter's politics are increasingly unacceptable in the newly reunified Germany. He is summoned to the Principal's office, and what takes place there is what he had been expecting. The newly appointed Principal, fresh from "West", questions Ritter about his past. Surely to be a doctoral student of English, the language of the then enemy - America, he must have been especially trusted by the Party? Perhaps his knowledge of the language and his position as Chairman of the International Student Friendship Society was useful in the recruitment of spies from the West? And there was also his book Workers' Dawn, a collection of stories celebrating the proletariat. Dr Ritter must see that, all in all, his position as a teacher in the school is no longer tenable.
Instant dismissal - Ritter clears out his belongings and packs them into his battered Trabi car, itself a wilful badge of old allegiances. He makes the journey back to his mother's flat, his wife having asked him to leave their marriage and their home shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now, embittered by his losses and by what he sees as the carpet-bagging race of the West to grab the spoils of the old East Germany, Ritter broods as he nurses his dying mother, Petra. Petra had always stood apart from the Party line and kept a low profile. Their own disagreements had surfaced strongly after reunification, resulting in bitter arguments. But it had always been just the two of them. On his papers his father was listed as Johannes Vos who had died before Michael's birth. Now Petra herself is dying. As Michael holds her hand and with her last breath she makes him promise to find "Pastor Bruck in Bad Saarow" who will tell him about his father "Roland".
Shocked by yet another loss and the indecipherable puzzle of "Roland", Ritter sets off for Bad Saarow and Pastor Bruck. His search leads him to a small church and the bitter antagonisms sprung from his country's fearful past.
THE BERLIN CROSSING by Irish writer Kevin Brophy is partly set in Germany during its early post-reunification period. In painting Michael Ritter's view of post-reunification Germany, author Kevin Brophy drew upon stories told to him during his own teaching days in what had been East Germany; told by those whom he has described as "...displeased, defensive Germans … ill-at-ease in their new country". Let's not forget that Michael has been raised in the GDR by a mother forced to remain silent about her own past. He has known no other kind of state. If he absorbs the values and mores of this state as his own, what happens to such a young man when that state and its culture disappears overnight? For me this is the fresh and interesting aspect of THE BERLIN CROSSING and one which I wish Brophy had been able to expand. But the core of the book returns to 1962 and the story of the lovers Petra and Roland. Here the book seems to step into an almost caricatured world of "spy fiction". Roland Feldmann is a young Irishman who after a disastrous night out in London is press-ganged into espionage in East Germany by a shadowy, one-man band of a team from British Intelligence. This ultra secret service unit appears to be composed of survivors from a Second World War partisan-based Special Operations unit and is led by a certain Fitch-Bellingham (whom I desperately want to be "played" by Mark Gatiss). It conducts a dark and dirty secret war and crudely extorts Roland's help. In East Germany Fitch-Bellingham's counterpart is the mad and bad Major Fuchs who pursues Roland at every turn.
THE BERLIN CROSSING is not, within the context of this website and its reviews, a crime story. At its heart it is a tragic love story set against the background of Cold War espionage. The book tells Roland and Petra's story and follows Michael's own attempts to resolve what he finds out about them. I found it a very readable book but one that tends to separate into parts. The predicament of Michael Ritter's viewpoint is an interesting one and I hope that Kevin Brophy will explore this theme of post-Cold War alienation and reconciliation further in future books.
Lynn Harvey, England
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