T.H.E. Hill knows a bit about Army life and all that it entails. After serving a tour at Herzo Base in the late 1960s, T.H.E. Hill went on to serve with the U.S. Army Security Agency at Field Station Berlin in the mid-1970s. During his time in the Army, Mr. Hill was taught several languages, including Russian, Polish, German and Czech.
T.H.E. Hill is a three-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute (DLIWC) in Monterey, California, whose alumni just happens to be called “Monterey Marys.” Mr. Hill is now retired from Federal Service and able to write what he wants on his time. I am thrilled to share with readers an interview about one of these great works, Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary!
First of all, could you tell us a bit about Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary? What is the story about, who are the characters, etc.
The novel is ostensibly about the pre-wall Berlin Spy Tunnel that the CIA used to tap Russian telecommunications cables in the mid-1950s. It became famous, when it was discovered by the Soviets, 54 years ago on 21 April 1956. The Time Magazine article (7 May 1956) about the discovery was entitled "BERLIN: Wonderful Tunnel." In the article the tunnel is described by a German journalist as "the best publicity the U.S. has had in Berlin for a long time."
• You can learn more about the Berlin Spy Tunnel at the on-line Cold War Museum.
The yarn in the novel is told from both ends of the tunnel. One end is the story of the Americans who worked the tunnel. The main character — Kevin — is a "Monterey Mary," which is Army slang for a Linguist. He is the one who has to transcribe the Russian conversations that are coming off the cable tap. This part of the story is about the fight of the tunnel rats for a sense of purpose against boredom and against the enemy both within and without. Reviewers have compared the novel to Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Richard Hooker's M*A*S*H*, and Hans Helmut Kirst's Zero Eight Fifteen, perhaps better known in America as The Revolt of Gunner Asch.
The other end of the tunnel is the story of the Russians whose telephone calls the Americans are intercepting. Their side of the tale is told in the unnarrated transcripts of their calls. They are the voices under Berlin. This part of the novel has been compared to Henrik Ibsen's "play for voices," Peer Gynt, which is usually considered very hard to stage due to its accent on the aural, rather than on the visual. This unusual approach to literature is intended to help the reader understand the ear-centric worldview of the people who had to transcribe the Russians' conversations. The result is a new type of spy novel, as unique as Berlin herself. It is Cloak-and-dagger with headphones.