The Other Side of Silence

9780399177040_p0_v2_s192x300   When I first met W. Somerset Maugham, I was a precocious fourth-grader who had chosen Of Human Bondage for my book report.  As Sister Eugene Marie calmly pointed out, I had understood most of the plot, but completely missed the point of Philip Carey’s struggle.  Since then, I’ve enjoyed Maugham’s other works – Moon and Sixpence is one of my favorites  – but never again read his masterpiece.  Having found him in a different venue in Philip Kerr’s The Other Side of Silence, maybe I’ll try again.

Maugham is the famous writer who supposedly needs a fourth for bridge in Kerr’s eleventh novel starring the fictional Berlin detective Bernie Gunther.  Kerr writes in a fast-paced staccato, and I’ve read  none of his thirty books or the previous ten in the Bernie Gunther series.  When I sought out his recent interview in the Book Review section of the New York Times – By the Book, none of the books on his nightstand appealed to me, but I did note Jean Stein’s West of Eden as a book I might try.  When The Other Side of Silence opened with – “Yesterday, I tried to kill myself,” I almost stopped reading , but knowing Maugham was lurking in the shadows, I kept on.

In The Other Side of Silence Bernie Gunther, the former Berlin policeman and private eye, has relinquished his former exciting life as a German police officer and detective, and is now working with false papers as Walter Wolf, the concierge at the Grand Hôtel on the Riviera, near the lush residence of Maugham.  Kerr uses Maugham’s homosexuality and his life as a British spy as the bait for a fast-paced mystery detective story.

When a former Gestapo officer, Harold Heinz Hebel, tries to blackmail Maugham with a salacious photo of him in a compromising position, Maugham enlists Bernie’s help. Hebel is also trying to blackmail Bernie, threatening to reveal his identity.  Kerr obligingly fades back to pre-war Berlin in the late nineteen thirties, as Bernie explains his former relationship with Hebel and their shady relationship with the Nazis who were trying to abscond with yet another priceless treasure.  The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustoff, “one of the greatest maritime disasters in history,” becomes a key motivator in the plot – Bernie’s pregnant lover died with over nine thousand others when it sank.

Despite the Mickey Spillane style of writing, I found myself trapped in the story – a mix of Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie, with philosophical notes of Kant and historical references to the Stasi and Gestapo.  The plot twists keep the story exciting and the flashbacks offer historical perspective, with Maugham’s history as a British spy in charge of a team of secret agents playing a key role.  Overall, as mysteries go, it was a fun read, and the ending provides one last surprise – confirmed later in the author’s note as possibly scarier in reality than the fiction.

9781412811729_custom-5f064d218dc602df51d59d4b81f735be7e966631-s300-c85  And the best part – Kerr’s characterization of Maugham awakened my yearning to read a good Maugham story again – maybe Ashenden, Maugham’s fictional adventures of a writer turned spy, based on his own experiences.  I’ve ordered it from the library.



The Moment

Fifty years ago in August, 1961, the border between East and West Germany was sealed and the new Wall kept anyone from leaving East Berlin.   This barrier to freedom stood until November, 1989.  In The Moment, Douglas Kennedy creates an event that changed the life of Thomas Nesbitt in Berlin in the 1980s when the Wall was still up.  Nesbitt, a travel writer, recently divorced, receives a package that forces him to remember his earlier years in Berlin.

Kennedy methodically wallows through over a hundred pages revealing his own theories on the writing process, true love, and the war – wisdom that seems mostly trite.   Not until the flashback with Nesbitt in Berlin twenty years earlier in the 1980s does the action start, with the narrative becoming a mix of historical fiction, romance, and spy thriller.  As Nesbitt relives his time in Berlin with Petra Dussman, an East Berlin translator for Radio Liberty who escaped to the West, his descriptions of a time and place that existed not that long ago are a window to living through the Cold War.

“The tension of being in a largely forbidden place, where the undercurrent police state paranoia was…tangible. East Berlin: the bogeyman of all Cold War nightmares.”

Petra’s backstory, when finally revealed after she and Nesbitt have become lovers,

Berlin Wall

confirms the horrors hidden behind the Wall. The descriptions of guilt by association as well as incarceration with physical and mental torture are compelling to read – the espionage only adds to the fervor.

Kennedy divides the story into five parts:  Nesbitt facing his demons in a loveless marriage; the flashback that slowly builds the historical snapshot of the Cold War; the climax with love, betrayal, coerced patriotism, and regret; the big reveal – not so hard to predict – when Petra tells her version of the story. Kennedy unnecessarily repeats too much of the story already told – until it diverts into an unexpected twist.

In the end, Kennedy returns Nesbitt to the present and ties up all the loose ends. Checkpoint Charlie has vanished, no traces of the Wall remain, Petra leaves a final letter, and Nesbitt makes an investment in the future.   In his last words, Nesbitt invokes “the moment…that tells us who we are, what we search for, what we so want to unearth…”  In Nesbitt’s life, Petra was his moment.

Did I like this book? Hard to say.   Yes – for the history, the romance, the bits of spy thriller.   But – over 500 pages – too long a moment.  The story could have been reduced to about 300 by omitting much of the repetition and clichéd observations on life and love.

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