Further reviews will be posted once they become available.
Adrian de Hoog, an author from the wide-open prairies and icy-cold of Canada, delivers a fresh, new perspective on the game of espionage in his two novels: The Berlin Assignment (2006) and Borderless Deceit (2007). These are not bang and boom spy thrillers, but are rather novels with spies in them. The Berlin Assignment plays out against the backdrop of post-wall Berlin and the problems of German reunification. Borderless Deceit is the tale of the Canadian role in the intelligence war against illicit weapons trafficking and money laundering that begins with the same kind of cyber attack that was launched on Georgia before the Russians invaded in August 2008. The world of fiction was ahead of the real world on this one. Borderless Deceit came out before the attack became a fact.
Both novels share the same story line, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage to the reader. The advantage is that the common story line provides de Hoog more time to develop his excellent psychological portraits of the characters. The disadvantage is that the reader can guess how Borderless Deceit ends before the final chapter is read. The reason that the story lines share so many parallels, explains De Hoog, is that he rather enjoyed constructing the interplay of the story elements when he was working on The Berlin Assignment, but after a number of years passed without the novel finding a publisher, he concluded that "it would never be published and then thought [he] might as well use that structure again." That is not to say that the one novel is a simple retelling of the other. No. The details of the stories are subtly varied, creating new interesting visions of the same motif.
The main attraction of De Hoog’s novels are the people who inhabit them. His visual portraits are economic, but his psychological profiles are detailed and filled with subtle brush strokes. In both the novels, the main show is a search to understand the relationships between the characters. The central characters of the story line are an introverted male lead and an extroverted female lead. The key issue in their relationship is best reflected in one of the questions that the female lead in Borderless Deceit asks herself: “Where lies the line between being alone and being lonely?” (BD p. 179) De Hoog’s novels explore the consequences of crossing this line.
The moral of both stories is perhaps best expressed by a Gorbachev quote found in The Berlin Assignment. When asked what he thinks of the Honecker regime on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev replies, "History punishes those who act too late." (TBA p. 420) In Borderless Deceit, the heroine connects loneliness and time when she tells the male lead that "you suffered from some form of monomania and the tragedy is you allowed it to waste precious years." (BD p. 317) For the heroine, time is fleeting, but "good memories are the return on an investment of time," and she already has had a good return on her investment in her Vienna years. (BD p. 173) To the contemplative reader, the clear implication of her conclusion is that the male lead has invested unwisely.
The element of espionage comes into play in both novels in the attempts of outsiders to understand the complex relationships of the two leading characters. When viewed in a certain light, their relationships have all the makings of a spy drama. Thanks to the narrator, however, the reader knows the "truth" of these relationships, making the outsiders' efforts to uncover the counter intelligence (CI) aspect of the couple's relationship seem like full-blown cases of paranoia.
In The Berlin Assignment, the investigation of the couple's relationship is set against the backdrop of East Germany's Stasi past. This backdrop serves to highlight the parallels between the analytical methods and motivations of the Stasi and those of the retiring British Chief of Station in Berlin, who wants a CI coup to close his career and believes that the starring couple of the novel will be it.
De Hoog comments on this with subtle indirectness. When the male lead of The Berlin Assignment finishes reviewing his Stasi file, he makes an observation about the great amounts of insignificant detail that fill the file, meticulously kept for year after year. "A Stasi specialty," says the archivist. "They lacked feedback loops telling them they were on a wild goose chase. Once they started, they couldn't stop." (TBA pp. 326, 477) The attentive reader soon sees that the same is true of the British Chief of Station.
In Borderless Deceit, De Hoog has a marvelous characterization of the motivation for continuing to believe the CI analysis of the main characters' relationship, and for further pursuing an investigation of it. The chief inquisitor is confronted by the female co-star of the novel, who calls his CI analysis "pseudo-intellectual trotting around," the purpose of which is to "spice up" his "own ego" (BD p. 203). The "wild goose chase that could not be stopped" and the "spice of pseudo-intellectual trotting around" are simply two sides of the same coin.
The irony of all this is that the character who defends the male lead in The Berlin Assignment from the witch hunt of the British Chief of Station is the same one, who in Borderless Deceit is leading the witch hunt to spice up his own ego.
The exploration of the CI aspects of the leading characters' relationships leads to the issue of the truth, which is a key one in the shadowy CI world where things are never as they seem. In The Berlin Assignment, the male lead says that Canadians are "selfless white knights, all of us. The truth first, self-preservation second" (TBA p. 436), and it appears so, because the "bad guy" is a Brit. In Borderless Deceit, the actions of the male lead confirm this positive assessment Canadians, and the lead turns into a "knight errant" (BD p. 349). The actions of the chief inquisitor, however, demonstrate that not all Canadians have a good handle on the truth, and that the truth has a certain malleability in some circles.
Recommended for those looking for something more than boom and bang in their spy fiction. These are "literary" spy novels that make you think. The Berlin Assignment is especially interesting for its illumination of the social dynamics of post-wall Berlin. Borderless Deceit will appeal to those with an appetite for stories of the intricacies of technical intelligence collection and analysis. A translation of the novels to the silver screen could produce films that would rival The Lives of Others and The Quiet American. I hope that this will not be too long in happening.
June 10, 2007
Adrian de Hoog started writing his first novel while he was based with Canadian Foreign Affairs in its Berlin consulate. "I found I was enjoying the process so much I thought why don't I do this full time?" he recalls.
De Hoog retired in 2004 and his debut novel (whose title, The Berlin Assignment, confirms his obsession with that city), based on his experiences in the German capital, came out two years later. Now he is expecting his second book to appear this fall in time for the Christmas market, and the third is taking shape "up here," tapping his brow. But not for a few months. "I need a break, I never realized how tough it was just getting started."
His experience with The Berlin Assignment coincides with that of most first-time authors. Twelve publishers and a couple of agents taught him only that publishers acknowledge the receipt of manuscripts, even if they are accompanied by a rejection slip, and agents don't.
As it happens he finally found a Newfoundland publisher but only through a contact in Germany, at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Breakwater Books in St. John's normally only publishes Newfoundland writers but they were at the fair when de Hoog's friend, who was impressed by this ambitious first novel, brought it to their attention.
Clyde Rose of Breakwaster liked it too. As de Hoog puts it. "It's just a matter of luck really, being in the right place at the right time and having something that's a little different."
The Berlin Assignment is not quite classic Cold War material; it's more character-driven, more atmospheric. De Hoog mentions John Le Carre as an influence, also John Irving and Salman Rushdie. His story is about a consul assigned to Berlin (where de Hoog himself was consul-general in the late '80s, although he insists that doesn't make him Anthony Hanbury, his chief protagonist) shortly after the fall of The Wall.
Old tensions persist and Hanbury's penchant for long walks and reviving old friendships from a previous stay in Berlin, make him an object of suspicion among his superiors. His diplomatic reputation among the Germans thrives but colleagues are less impressed, discerning in him a possible "sleeper" spy.
In the end, he and his newswoman friend end up in the Stasi files where their every movement is recorded by the secret police.
Was he himself ever followed? De Hoog recalls that it happened. As a student in Germany he met and married a Berliner, his wife Regina. She had never seen the old and most historic part of her own city but as a resident had to use a different checkpoint to get there. They met in East Berlin and she warned him that she was being followed.
"They were big men and so obvious ... but we never bothered to check the Stasi files later to see what they had on us."
Despite this experience, de Hoog, a youthful-looking 60, is eloquent about his preoccupation with Berlin. He visits every year with his wife. "It is right in the middle of the history of our times -- all around you can see it, it's fascinatingly complex."
From diplomatic Berlin to the netherworld of international intelligence is a major physical leap though de Hoog's concern with the worldwide invasion of individual privacy permeates his second novel. It has a tentative title, Borderless Deceit, and its centrepiece is an intelligence analyst who uses his connection with the CIA to investigate a woman friend on the board of a foundation which raises money for the world's poorest children, even as it fronts for the global arms and drug trade.
"It's not a crime novel as such and it's a lot different from the first one," de Hoog acknowledges.
Meanwhile, in his Rothwell Heights home he indulges his enthusiasm for gardening with the headier pursuit of national and global activity as a busy consultant. His working knowledge -- of environmental politics in Idi Amin's Kenya, as an economic counsellor in Berlin, as an expert in nuclear proliferation for his own government and as one-time head of the Canadian Foreign Service Institute -- fuels his literary output.
With such experience he writes of what he knows and suffers the torment of his trade through 15 or so drafts of each novel, even as he fends off old colleagues who read his Assignment looking for themselves in it.
"I tell them, don't bother, You won't find anyone you know there."
Once a diplomat ...
Noel Taylor is an Ottawa writer.
Good Housekeeping (India)
Retired diplomats usually write boring memoirs, often about 'I, me and myself'. Adrian de Hoog, former Canadian ambassador, is in that rare group of authors who have profited from their peripatetic life to soak in the atmosphere of one of the great world capitals, Berlin, and produce a highly readable novel. This work blends authentic local flavour, an intimate knowledge of two absorbing genres, diplomacy and espionage, and an incredibly complex era, the period immediately after the end of the Cold War and German Unification. The novel is also an object lesson in the mindless logic of bureaucracies - theirs and ours.
June 27, 2007
Former diplomats-turned-writers tend to stick to the style they know best. Those who've spent their careers compiling reports based on careful observations of goings-on tend to stick with memoirs or autobiographies. But Adrian de Hoog has bravely plunged into the realm of fiction in his first book since retiring from the Canadian foreign service in 2004, and I'm happy to say it's a worthwhile read.
The Berlin Assignment is inspired by the author's own experience as Canada's consul-general in Berlin shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Set in the exact same city in the same time frame, it tells the story of Anthony Hanbury, a career diplomat desperate to escape the stifling atmosphere at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa for the newly-created posting of consul in Berlin, where he had been a student when the wall was erected. He managed to score the assignment, much to the chagrin of his colleagues, namely his boss Irving Heywood.
But right from day one, the job isn't as sweet as Hanbury had hoped. His after-work activities, rekindling friendships with old acquaintances, including an ex-lover and her husband, spark suspicion in both Berlin and Ottawa, resulting in Hanbury's unceremonious removal from the post a year later. The mysterious tale of Hanbury's rise and fall unfolds years later through the reminiscence of the gossip-loving Heywood, who always seems to know more than he lets on.
The dark and secretive plot of The Berlin Assignment is quite intriguing, and I hear Mr. de Hoog's descriptions of the once-divided city are spot-on, but Mr. de Hoog has taken equal care to make descriptions of life in Ottawa and the exchanges at headquarters just as complex and dramatic.
For instance, he nurtures a fitting metaphor of the department as religious order-Heywood is the priest in charge of investitures (the personnel division), the high priest is not of the service but has been transferred from the Tithe Collectors across town, there is the disarmament priory (promoting international peace), the zealots (European desk officers), and the spooks in the Crypt-giving an air of insider knowledge while keeping things anonymous. He shines a light on how officers' lives are deeply affected by their chosen vocation, and the competitive clashes between them and with the top bureaucrats.
Though a fictional story, The Berlin Assignment seems to tell the truth about an intense career that can be as demoralizing as it can be uplifting.
Mr. de Hoog will be reading from The Berlin Assignment at the German ambassador's residence on June 28. See the Ottawa Listings for details.
The Hamilton Spectator
March 10, 2007
De Hoog's first novel, The Berlin Assignment, is the story of a Canadian diplomat's eventful career in Berlin shortly after the fall of the Wall.
Postwall Berlin is a puzzle of lingering intrigue where the divisions between East and West persist despite revised appearances and new-found energy. De Hoog's setting evokes the richness of custom, history and new beginnings, complete with the hatred and love ingrained in the city and its people.
The nuances are there: how the seasons affect the street life, how the city copes with the cold that reflects the barren differences between East and West and how even the rain can carry a depression that creeps in over a population.
Diplomat Anthony Hanbury is assigned to the Berlin Embassy and is swept up by the energy of setting up an official residence, confronting old memories and separating intrigue from initiative. Striving to compartmentalize his professional persona from his personal reality, Hanbury is slowly consumed by Berlin's political demons.
It's an interesting debut, not in the traditional, murder-to-solve mystery variety, but in the methodical destruction of a career; or worse, of the man himself. Are the motives so different from murder?
Greed, revenge and political retribution are the driving forces in this novel. Characters are skilfully drawn and the story unfolds like a career diary with a climax as unexpected as it is satisfying. The tale is rich in gossip and loaded with scandalous traps. All in all, an auspicious debut.
Bout de Papier
Adrian De Hoog's first novel, The Berlin Assignment is a very good read, well crafted and smartly written as it follows a FS officer who returns to Berlin 25 years after his post graduate studies there. His coming back sets off a chain of events, clouded in the ambiguously sinister atmosphere of post Cold War Berlin. For those who love a fog and intrigue in Berlin, this is your book.
As stellar as was his foreign service career, Adrian may be on the way to finding his true calling-a novelist, with a fine pen for narrative, atmosphere and turn of phrase. This should not be surprising for those of us who remember him in the department. After all, who else could write equally well taut talking points at G8 Summits, training manuals on the thirteen management competencies that sang, and intellectually gripping presentations to Cabinet on climate change? Oh, my god, is this review sounding like an appraisal report?
Leaving aside the above, I too may have found my true calling-reviewing novels whose hero is a Canadian diplomat. This has not kept me terribly busy-the last time I did it was ten years ago when I reviewed famed Canadian journalist-gone-south Robin MacNeil's second novel, The Voyage.
But De Hoog's and MacNeil's novels share traits which may suggest that we are at the beginnings of a new sub-genre of the thriller-the Canadian consul general of intrigue. Both books have a Canadian consul as the principal character; both heroes have pretty lively sex lives (our boys pay more attention to SEX than PMA); both novels revel in the minutiae of the Canadian foreign service; and both novels' plots track the somewhat meandering going-ons of the protagonists whose lives then come somewhat undone, ending with some (but not really catastrophic-after all we are Canadian) impact on their lives.
Despite De Hoog's wonderfully descriptive prose (no Da Vinci Code one sentence chapters here), his wonderful capturing of the eerie atmosphere of Berlin, his successful weaving of the currents of Berlin past -the post war catastrophe, the Cold War split, the insanity of East Germany and the Stasi empire, the resurgent of neo-Nazism and the Ossies vs the Wessies, and our hero's past with this city both sinister and beautiful, something is missing.
Maybe it's this-this kind of Canadian consul general genre is, if I may suggest, lacking pulsating action and suspense. James Bond, Jack Ryan and John Smiley can rest easy-their day and night jobs are safe; our Canadian heroes are really not engaged with earth-shaking events of global consequence.
No mad rush to stop the assassination of a President (or even a PM); no frantic foiling of a terrorist plot to nuke Baltimore, let alone Barrie, Ontario; no uncovering of a conspiracy to wipe out a secret cult dedicated to preserving the secret that Jesus married Mary Madeleine and their offsprings are now alive and well in living in Scotland. The Sum of All Fears for Canadian diplomats just may be a Team Canada mission.
In the Berlin Assignment, Richard Hanbury is a 25 year plodder, who accepts an assignment to open up the official residence in Berlin, build up his network, becomes pals with the Chief of Protocol (see what I mean?), goes to and offers up hospitality events, finds furniture for the new place and wires the office for SIGNET. He also deals with his local staff-a roly poly Brit administrator who has a tremendously kinky sex life with his fat wife, Frieda, and a strict German secretary who has a negative view of our hero's propensity to take long walks and leave the driver at home.
Hanbury's chief interest is to renew acquaintance with his old girlfriend, whom he dumped unceremoniously 25 years ago, check up on some old friends he knew in East Berlin, when East Berlin was East Berlin, and date and mate an up and coming East Berlin journalist.
Now although our man has not hijacked a Russian nuclear submarine, his personal adventures bring him into the orbit of some sinister characters, one embedded in the old Cold War intelligence wars, another dabbling in neo-Nazi politics, and most evil of all, one running the Foreign Affairs personnel branch. And alas, his Berlin wanderings lead to his downfall.
But as Elaine once said about the English Patient in Seinfeld-"Go ahead and just die-who cares!"
As well, De Hoog's book often straddles uneasily between satire and thriller, and the reader is often left wondering which one is which. For example, throughout the book, De Hoog associates the Foreign Service metaphorically with the Church and suggests that we in the FS do so too. "The Personnel Department turned into Investitures, policies in Asia were formed in -where else-the Asian Temple; the Zealots looked after Europe, the spooks inhabited the Crypt and Irving Hayword when Tony worked for him was Priest in charge of the Disarmament Priory." Really? And, I thought our acronyms were bad enough. I hope readers really do not think we talk like that.
Then there is the character of the Deputy Minister, Bo Bilinski, who is often referred to as the High Priest. Bo, a Rocky Mountains boy, hates public policy.
"The crap of government", he whispered to his wife "it's like sitting in a vat of goddamn filth". Bo had always managed to outrun the putrid slime of policy. Hadn't he shot Tax Policy to pieces without being corrupted? And blown Competition Policy apart with his swagger undiminished? Even a thorough evisceration of Industrial Policy hadn't threatened his survival as a human being. But running Foreign Policy forced him to the conclusion it was time to quit. Foreign Policy was inconstant, a moving target, weaving and dodging. Even if he happened to land a blow, it seemed he had only punched a bog, because foul vapours were suddenly released."
Great stuff, great satire. And don't we all feel the same; though I'm glad I did not quite put it that way during my last EX competition. But if this is meant to be a thriller, isn't it too a bit corny?
Yet in the end, The Berlin Assignment reveals a solid talent and stylist. And I have no doubt when Adrian irons out a first timer's kinks and gets his groove, he will produce a great thriller, perhaps the first Canadian consul thriller. Or even, the great Canadian satire-the Canadian DM trilogy-the Lords of the Eighth? We should all look forward to them.
With the end of the Cold War-or at least the overt aspects of it-writers of spy novels suddenly found themselves without material to write gripping tales. Novelists such as John Le Carré began to flounder, writing some truly awful books. Then al-Qaeda became more prominent and writers turned to the Middle East for their spy material. These books are by now becoming a dime a dozen, and are getting pretty boring. One appreciates, therefore, when a writer turns to the aftermath of the fall of the Wall in Berlin for a novel that features the intrigue that is part of the woof and warp of that city.
Adrian de Hoog is the second Canadian diplomat whom I have come across, who has turned to writing as a second career. Unlike Gilbert Reid, who concentrates on short stories, de Hoog has turned to the novel form. His first book, The Berlin Assignment, is - as the name implies - a tale that features Berlin, front row, centre while also offering some insight into the murkier side of diplomatic relations. This is an enjoyable read. This being the author's first novel, one hopes de Hoog will turn his background in the foreign service to continued good use in future books.
The Berlin Assignment is set in the turbulent 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. What De Hoog achieves in his novel is not unlike, say Graham Greene's excellent tale in No Man's Land. He manages to capture the atmosphere of the place to perfection. Even though the Wall came down after it had dominated Berlin for 28 years, its effects still linger even today, and did more so at the time in which de Hoog has set his novel. By capturing the city's atmosphere, which then was undoubtedly the sleaziest major city in Europe, and now as Germany's capital, is that continent's sleaziest capital, Moscow excluded, he is able to replicate the personal tensions that exist between the eastern and western sections of Berlin.
Berlin, which dominated the world stage in the 20th century, has a strange history as a city. When London, Paris and Rome were already ancient places filled with a varied history and many cultural institutions, Berlin was a mere hovel. It was first mentioned in documents in the 13th century. In 1415 Berlin and its sister town across the Spree, Cölln, became the joint capital of Brandenburg, but it remained a town. In 1600 a mere 12,000 residents inhabited this town and by the end of the 30 Years' War, only about 7,000 remained. By that time Cölln's most famous citizen had been one Hans or Johannes Kohlhase, who in the early 16th century turned into an outlaw because he had been denied justice. In 1810 he would become the model for Heinrich von Kleist's famous novel, Michael Kohlhaas, in 1975 the model for E. L. Doctorow's novel, Ragtime, and then in 1999 the TV film, The Jack Bull.
In 1709 Berlin-Cölln was made a city by Frederick I, King of Prussia and the name Cölln slipped away. He inherited as his capital a fairly cosmopolitan population that had been augmented by his forebears with a large group of Jews, and various Protestant groups-including Huguenots from France-whom they invited to settle there. By becoming the capital of Prussia, Berlin took on a new role. When Frederick the Great died in 1786, Berlin had grown to 150,000 inhabitants and by 1870, just before the unification of all the German states, excluding Austria, it had 800,000 residents. Still, it did not yet attract the great international minds as places like London, Paris or even Vienna did. With the arrival of the Kaisers, surrounding towns were incorporated, a further building boom began, and if World War I had not intervened it might have rivaled those cities. By the end of that war it had 3,850,000 residents.
A cultural ferment began after WWI that attracted a very different kind of artists and writers than London or Paris. Their tone was dark, reflecting the mood of a nation that never quite managed to reach the top, and now had lost a major war. Berlin, more than Paris, London or Rome, became the place where the extreme bourgeoisie clashed with extreme libertines. Then Hitler arrived and another building boom took place, although none of his buildings achieved architectural greatness. The intellectuals that had come to Berlin were either forced to leave, or left on their own, creating a brain drain that to this day has not been reversed. A decline in population began, acerbated by the loss of WWII and the division of the city into East and West. After the fall of the Wall in 1989, the population again began to rise, especially after unification of East and West Germany into one state, and Berlin was once again chosen as the capital of Germany. Many of the new residents arrived from eastern countries once dominated by Communism and a distinctly seedy atmosphere prevailed in many areas. A giant building boom ensued to make room for not just the bureaucrats and politicians to move in, but also to allow industry and commerce to build headquarters. Berlin's latest census figures place the urban population of the city at 3,675,000, slightly less than that of Toronto. But Berlin, despite the rapid growth, was broke in 2006. It once again attracts artists and thinkers, but they are those on the sidelines, and once again, they appear to be shaped by the darker atmosphere of the city. And by the grayness of the sky for most of the year. Berlin, no matter how hard it tries to get away from its natural dourness, is a gray city.
When de Hoog's The Berlin Assignment begins, Berlin was not yet the capital of the newly united Germany. The protagonist of the tale is the Canadian consul general, Anthony Hanbury. He has been sent to that city, although his actually role is that of the consul to eastern part of Germany. As he is briefed in Ottawa, "Our real interests with Germany are pursued elsewhere."
Hanbury had spent two years in Berlin as a student in the early 1960s, and on his return there tries to make contact with some of his former friends, even an ex-lover, who by now has married another man. His staff at the consulate is headed by Earl Gifford, the administrator, a Brit who had chosen to stay in Berlin after his term was up with the British consulate. Hanbury's chauffeur is Sturm, who is a typical Berliner, loquacious, with a biting sense of humor not unlike London's Cockneys, and three local women employees, " . . . . three ladies, thorough women of the kind that once made Prussia great . . . ."
Soon we see the unassuming Hanbury drawn into the social whirl of Berlin while Gifford runs the office. But Gifford also has other interests which we won't reveal here. Let it be said he manages to dupe the consul exceedingly well. Hanbury's German contacts eventually also lead the unsuspecting consul into the murky waters of East/West relations that includes his spending much time looking at old Stasi files. A new woman arrives in his life, a German journalist who writes a column about how bad the Ossies (East Germans) have it in the new Germany. And then there are the spooks who seem to plot and prod without Hanbury ever catching on.
The author also gives us a cheeky look at Ottawa's bureaucratic structure and hierarchy, a glimpse of people who need to justify their existence within this structure, people who wheel and deal in a bureaucratic roulette that can make or break someone's diplomatic career.
And finally, we get a look at Berlin from all sorts of angles, and a close-up of not just Berliners, but German nature. In one conversation we find Hanbury questioning the German justice system. "No one called to account . . . . " Hanbury said. "It's not something we are traditionally good at," came the reply from a friend, Berlin's chief of protocol, Gerhard von Helmholtz. The conversation comes toward the end of the book when Hanbury is on the way out of Berlin and on his way to a new assignment on a different continent. It sums up much of what is wrong with Berlin and good about this story. De Hoog has revealed much more in his book than he might have wanted to, given that he is a diplomat by profession and, one feels, by nature.
It's not clear to me exactly why Breakwater Books has published "The Berlin Assignment" by Adrian de Hoog. He's not a Newfoundland (or Labrador) writer, and the only connection to this province in the entire 511 pages of the book is the spouse of a relatively minor character.
We're just lucky I guess. And I mean that most sincerely - this is easily the most gripping novel I've read this year. (Need a reference point? I read "The Da Vinci Code" right after "The Berlin Assignment".)
"The Berlin Assignment" reads like a really good John le Carré novel. In my world, this is a very good thing. I love the way le Carré mixes intricate plots with memorable and intricate characters.
Le Carré's characters could be people you knew, if people you knew run MI5 and the CIA.
De Hoog's novel isn't a spy story as such (although intelligence agencies past and present play an important role), but its characters could have walked out of a latter day le Carré novel.
"The Berlin Assignment" is the story of Anthony Hanbury, Canadian consul-general to Germany in the early 1990s, a position de Hoog himself filled at that time in real life.
Hanbury is a talented pianist and the product of a charmingly dysfunctional family unit. He is indecisive, inclining to go with the forces around him.
This is not necessarily a good idea when the forces in question are Ottawa bureaucrats with self-preservation instincts, intelligence officers who need to justify their existence, friends of friends with dark, secret lives, and consul functionaries who prefer to be told what to do - except for the one who's using government money to make his fortune flipping homes in a volatile market.
It's also not a great way to run a love life. Fascinating women have come and gone in Hanbury's past, the "gone" being in large part of his inability to make a decision and commit.
One of these women is Sabine whom Hanbury loved when he was a student. He hasn't seen her in 25 years and returns to Berlin to find her married and settled into a job at a bookstore run by a one-armed veteran of Hitler's army.
Sabine's husband has secrets of his own ,and we suspect his cultivation of the new Canadian consul may have more behind it than simple friendliness.
Then there's Gundula, a rising journalist with a shady East German past.
She shares her Berlin with Hanbury, taking him to the dives of the eastern city, introducing him to those who are still paying for decades of living under communism.
The city of Berlin is as much a character as any of the cleverly drawn people. It's not so long ago since the Berlin Wall has come down, and East and West are still negotiating their relationship. People from both sides cherish their stereotypes and hope for things to get better.
There are strong memories of both former governments; the contrasts are as obvious in the people as in the landscapes.
East Berliners are just emerging from a tightly wrapped cocoon, eager to share the wealth that has been just yards away for decades.
West Berliners are deeply suspicious of their poorer cousins. Intrigue abounds (Insert delicious shiver here.)
"The Berlin Assignment" is an incredible first novel, and I'm already impatient for de Hoog's second.
September 3, 2006
This well-crafted spy thriller combines an exciting, well evoked time - Berlin just after the destruction of the wall - with some engaging characters.
Anthony Hanbury is the Canadian consul in Berlin, a city he lived in years before. He's mostly interested in revisiting old haunts and finding new loves.
But his inadvertently secretive style and distinctive flair for making the right alliances begin to set a trend for reports headed back to Ottawa and a bar for entertaining in a cosmopolitan city. This novel's other characters are equally well drawn and engaging, including the absurdly sentimental Heywood, Hanbury's mentor (he thinks), and Sturm, the plaintive and philosophic embassy chauffeur.
One storyline is entirely taken with backroom manouevrings, and some of these scenes behind the scenes, where the drama is all of bureaucrats watching bureaucrats, seem to drag. But overall, this novel enlivens a unique and compelling political time and cultural setting.
If it's a little reminiscent of Our Man in Havana in its amiable tone and moral quandaries, well, that's not such a bad thing.
- Joan Sullivan is a writer and theatre director living in St. John's