Ost is ost

 The Berlin Crossing, by Kevin Brophy, Headline Review, RRP£12.99, 368 pages

Kevin Brophy’s The Berlin Crossing begins in 1993, in the freshly unified German state. Protagonist Michael Ritter, an academic and author of Marxist fiction, had been seen as a model citizen in the former East Germany – but when West German bureaucrats take charge of his school in Brandenburg, his loyalty to communist principles proves a liability under the new regime and he is forced out of his teaching job.

The novel’s opening chapters are bittersweet and beautifully observed. Disenchanted with life under capitalism, Michael chugs around in his rusty Trabant, railing against the “Wessie carpetbaggers” who had “swooped like vultures to gorge on the carcase” of the German Democratic Republic. In these early sequences, Brophy skilfully evokes Michael’s keen awareness of history’s little absurdities; during a visit to his ailing mother, Petra, he realises he was only recently “sitting in the same room ... in another country”.

Such reflections lead us to suspect that the novel’s theme is to be what Günter Grass called “unification without unity” – Germany’s post-Wende muddle. But when the dying Petra reveals a clue as to the true identity of Michael’s father – whom he never knew – it becomes apparent that Brophy’s real interest lies in an earlier, more divisive era. As Michael delves into his family history, the narrative abruptly shifts to 1962 and the story of Petra’s affair with Roland Feldmann, a handsome spy on the run from the secret police.

At this point the novel sadly mutates into a rather derivative espionage thriller. We learn how Roland, an Irishman of German extraction, was strong-armed into the British secret service, then dispatched to collect intelligence reports from an operative in East Berlin. Ambushed by the Stasi, he fled to the picturesque spa town of Bad Saarow, where he was sheltered by a kindly pastor and fell in love with Petra, then a young musician eager to learn more about the decadent west.

Unfortunately, very little in this needlessly prolonged flashback sequence rings true. Brophy’s Stasi are implausibly understaffed (only a single detective, albeit a stereotypically villainous and sadistic one, is sent to pursue London’s agent). The romantic scenes, meanwhile, are hampered by some awkward dialogue (“you smell like the moon”, Roland says, bafflingly, to his fragrant fräulein).

All this is frustrating because Brophy – a first-time novelist – can clearly do nuance. The end of the book finds Michael in Galway, exploring his new-found Irish heritage. His struggle to come to terms with what he has learned about his past and the cruel methods of his beloved GDR is subtly described in this brief, moving coda. It’s a shame that his journey of discovery required a dull detour into cold war kitsch.

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