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Interview: T.H.E. Hill, the Author of Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary

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About the novel: Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary, is ostensibly set against the backdrop of Operation GOLD, the now famous Berlin Tunnel that ran almost 1500 feet under the border between the American and Russian sectors of Berlin to tap three subsurface telephone cables carrying Russian and East-German communications. The novel is now in its third edition.

The yarn is told from both ends of the tunnel. One end is the story of the Americans who worked the tunnel, and how they fought for a sense of purpose against boredom and the enemy both within and without. This side of the story is told with a pace and a black humor reminiscent of that used by Joseph Heller (Catch-22) and Richard Hooker (M*A*S*H*). The other end of the tunnel story is the Russians whose telephone calls the Americans are intercepting. Their side of the tale is told in the un-narrated transcripts of their calls. They are the voices under Berlin.

The novel is part of the current wave of “insider” spy fiction that has begun to emerge in the twenty-first century. The author served at Field Station Berlin in the mid-1970s, after a tour at Herzo Base. He is a three-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, the alumni of which are called “Monterey Marys.”

This link will take you to my Blogcritics review of Voices Under Berlin.

There are a lot of illustrations in Voices Under Berlin. That’s very unusual for an “adult” novel. Why did you put in all the illustrations?

The answer is really part of a childhood memory of my mother reading me Alice in Wonderland. The first thing read in Alice’s voice is: “What’s the use of books without pictures or conversation?” I readily agreed with Alice, and took her words to heart.

There are both pictures and conversation in Voices Under Berlin. The pictures in Voices Under Berlin may not be as good as the ones I grew up with by Sir John Tenniel in Alice in Wonderland, or the ones by Frank Godwin in Treasure Island, but they do help to illustrate the lives of the people who populate what is a very ear-centric novel. Half of every chapter is nothing but conversation. Each chapter contains an unnarrated transcript of a telephone conversation between two Russians. The Russians are the voices under Berlin.

The lack of visual cues in the narrative is deliberate. Voices under Berlin is the story of someone who is very good at listening to conversations to which he is not a party, and making sense of them. The “aural” structure of the book is intended to push readers out of their “visual” comfort zone to give them a better feeling for what it is like to be ear-centric, because if you are going to understand what makes Kevin tick, you need to look at the world through his ears, not through his eyes.

Books are, in general, a very visual medium, and some readers, therefore, find an “aural” book unsettling. This can be explained by one of the things that they teach in courses on instructional technique. Students can be broken down into “aural learners” and “visual learners” based on the differences in their learning styles. Teachers are encouraged to vary their presentations to take this difference into account. This categorization is part of the reason why some people (Kevin) make good transcribers and others (Fast Eddie) don’t. What I’ve done is to tilt the novel to an almost completely “aural” presentation. The majority of the readers who are disturbed by the narrative structure of the book are in general visual learners.

The pictures in the book are there, in part, to help visual learners over the hurdle of the lack of visual cues in the narrative.

A reviewer on Amazon.com had the right idea when he said: Hill “writes with a convincing sense of authenticity and, through the use of photographs of people and places depicted in the novel, gives the impression that this story is closely based on real events.”

As you note, Voices Under Berlin is a very ear-centric novel, but yet it won an award at the Hollywood Book Festival. Film is a very visual medium. Wouldn’t making a movie based on an ear-centric book be rather difficult?

Hollywood has dealt with this problem before. Split-screen is a technique that was widely used in the 1950s and 1960s to simultaneously put both participants in a telephone conversation on screen at the same time. The classic example of this technique is the 1959 movie Pillow Talk with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, in which they share a party line. Director Michael Gordon uses bi-split and tri-split screens to get all the parties to the conversation on-screen at once. [This link will take you to a trailer for Pillow Talk that includes some of the split-screen telephone scenes.] The technique has a certain appeal for me, and I think that it would work well for Voices Under Berlin.

Split screen, however, fell out of favor in Hollywood toward the end of the twentieth century. Ronald Neame’s 1980 translation of Brian Garfield’s novel Hopscotch into film with Walter Matthau playing Miles Kendig does not use split-screen, but it nevertheless has a very successful scene that could easily be adapted for filming the transcript sequences in Voices Under Berlin. In Hopscotch, Kendig calls Isobel (Glenda Jackson), and CIA agent Ross (David Matthau) is listening in. Ross can be seen talking to the collection equipment, more or less like Kevin does in Voices Under Berlin. The camera shifts full-screen from Kendig to Ross to Isobel and back as each speaks. My feelings wouldn’t be hurt if they used this technique to film Voices Under Berlin.

Split screen has made a come-back in the twenty-first century. The prime-time dramatic series 24 has used multiple screens as part of its storytelling technique. Federal agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), his ex-lover, and his wife are all on-screen at once. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The ultimate silver-screen example of an “audio” intelligence operation, however, is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Das Leben der Anderen [The Lives of Others], which won an Oscar in 2007 for Best Foreign Language Film. The film shows how Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), an East German secret police officer, who is conducting an audio surveillance operation against a writer and his lover, finds himself becoming increasingly absorbed by the target’s lives. Von Donnersmarck’s vision of the interaction between the listener and the listenees captured exactly the right lighting for each; dark for the listener and light for the listenees. Das Leben der Anderen is a must-see for any cinema production company that wants to take on Voices Under Berlin.

Some critics have compared Voices Under Berlin to Catch-22 and M*A*S*H. Personally, it reminds me of the Gunner Asch novels[1] by Hans Helmut Kirst [1914-1989]. Can you see any similarities between Kevin and Gunner Asch?

The most obvious similarity between Kirst’s novel and mine is the military background that they both play against. I immediately felt at home in the milieu of Kirst’s story. I’ve been there and done that. The feeling that Kirst’s book gives off is the same feeling that I had when I read Catch-22 and M*A*S*H, and the feeling that I wanted to convey in Voices Under Berlin.

The stories in all four books are told with a type of dark humor that makes people who have not been in the military wonder if things can really be that messed up. They can. They didn’t dream up that old Army abbreviation SNAFU for nothing. It means “Situation Normal: All Fouled Up.” Since this is going into print, I figured I’d better use the polite version of the expansion. There is, however, an expletive-deleted version that I’ve heard more than once.

The original German title of Kirst’s Gunner Asch trilogy was Null-acht fünfzehn [Zero-Eight Fifteen]. This refers to the Wehrmacht’s standard issue Maxim machine gun from World War I. The “Fifteen” in “Zero-Eight Fifteen” is the year of first production: 1915. The 08/15 was still in use when World War II started, which is about when the term “Zero-Eight Fifteen” entered the German language. “08/15” has the same kind of currency in German as “Catch-22” does in English. You won’t find it in many, if any, dictionaries, but everybody knows what it means. During, and right after World War II, Null-acht fünfzehn could be considered roughly equivalent to SNAFU. These days SNAFU has fallen out of favor in English, but Null-acht fünfzehn is still used in German in the civilianized sense of “run of the mill”.

The original German titles of all three books in Kirst’s Gunner Asch trilogy begin with Null-acht fünfzehn:
Null-acht fünfzehn. Die abenteuerliche Revolte der Gefreiten Asch

Null-acht fünfzehn. Die seltsamen Kriegserlebnisse des Soldaten Asch
Null-acht fünfzehn. Der gefährliche Endsieg des Soldaten Asch

The English translator could not figure out what to do with Null-acht fünfzehn, so he left it out. I would have translated it as SNAFU.
SNAFU: The Adventurous Revolt of PFC Asch
SNAFU: The Unusual Experiences of Soldier Asch in the War
SNAFU: The Dangerous Final Victory of Soldier Asch

The big difference between Catch-22 and M*A*S*H* on the one hand and Voices Under Berlin and Null-acht fünfzehn on the other is that Heller’s and Hooker’s heroes are officers, while Kirst’s heroes and mine are enlisted men. But in all four of these novels, a great part of the divide between officers and enlisted men is bridged by the fact that none of the characters in these four novels really belong in the military. They are all independent thinkers, and that is what gets them in trouble with a system that just wants them to be little cogs in the wheels of the green machine.

Another similarity between Kirst’s story and mine is that we both play linguistic games with the names of our characters. Kirst in fact has a character whose name would be the same as that of one of my characters if you translated them both into English. Kirst has Major Luschke. I have Colonel Bespoleznyj. Both their names mean useless. Kirst’s name is built on the German word Lusche. Mine is a straight translation from Russian. The name that Kirst gave Sergeant Platzek makes him sound like he’s going to platzen (explode). The name that I gave Sergeant Laufflaecker is the German translation of the GI slang term for someone who has re-enlisted. Kirst’s Sergeant Schwitzke sounds like he schwitzt (sweats) everything, and in Voices Under Berlin Blackie’s girlfriend Trudy is a “working girl” because her name is Russian for “works.” You’ll have to buy the book to find out what Blackie’s name means. It takes a whole chapter to explain.

[1] - Kirst’s satiric trilogy Null-acht fünfzhen [Zero-Eight Fifteen] came out between 1954 and 1955, before Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), and Hooker’s M*A*S*H* (1968). It was a best seller in post-war Germany. The trilogy is the continuing story of an army draftee, Gunner Asch, and his personal battle with the absurdities of the German military system just before and during World War II.

Your first novel was about Berlin, and I read in another interview with you that your second and third novels are also about Berlin. What’s so special about Berlin?

When I was in the Army in Berlin, the phrase that I heard again and again was “Berlin is unique.” That was the explanation of why things were different in Berlin than they were any place else. I never heard a truer statement in my life. Berlin is unique.

In his famous “Tear Down this Wall” speech in Berlin in 1987, President Ronald Reagan used a line from a popular German song from the 1950s with music by Ralph Maria Siegel and lyrics by Aldo von Pinelli. My personal favorite rendition of this song is the one by Marlene Dietrich.

The line Reagan used is “Ich hab’ noch einen Koffer in Berlin” (I still have a suitcase in Berlin). To someone who has heard the whole song, this one line suggests the rest of the refrain, which explains why the singer keeps going back to Berlin. The refrain says it’s because that suitcase in Berlin is where the singer keeps all the happiness of times past, so when she feels wistful, she knows that it will be worth the trip back to go look in that suitcase in Berlin again.

Ich hab’ noch einen Koffer in Berlin” is to Berlin what Tony Bennett’s signature song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is to San Francisco.

Wladimir Kaminer, a Russian who immigrated to Berlin in the 1990s and is now a popular German author, put it another way in his book Ich bin kein Berliner (I’m not a Berliner), when he explained why he stayed in Berlin. “Once you land here, you almost never get away. Berlin forms ties that bind.”

I was in the Army in Berlin from 1974 to 1977, and I do still have a suitcase in Berlin. It’s got a lot of happy memories packed away in it. Some of those memories got repackaged into Voices Under Berlin, but the book wasn’t big enough for all of them, so they spilled over into The Day Before the Wall and Reunification.

The Day Before the Wall is a spy thriller. It is still in revision. Reunification is an exploration of the reunification of East and West Berlin from the perspective of an American GI who comes back to Berlin after the Fall of the Wall. It is still formulating itself. I need a trip to Berlin so I can look in my suitcase there to help it come together.

The suitcase that I have in Berlin is part of the reason that I got involved in the Field Station Berlin Veterans Group campaign to Save Teufelsberg! Teufelsberg is the name of the hill in Berlin where the Field Station was located. The Field Station Berlin Veterans Group, together with a number of local German groups in Berlin, wants to have the former Field Station buildings atop Teufelsberg designated the “Major Arthur D. Nicholson” Cold War Memorial, in memory of the last Cold War casualty, the U.S. Military Liaison Mission tour officer who was shot and killed by a Russian sentry near Ludwigslust on March 24, 1985; and in recognition of the countless men and women of the Allied Armed Forces who resolutely stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the West Berliners during the Cold War, ensuring that the island of freedom known as “West Berlin” remained free. Because the facility stands on one of the highest points in Berlin, it can be seen for miles in every direction. Brightly lit at night, it would be a constant visible reminder of Allied resolve to defend Berlin during the Cold War, and of Allied friendship with the newly reunited Germany.

Why Berlin? In his speech in Berlin in 1963, Kennedy said that “all free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.” The monument, therefore, is for all free men everywhere who, like Kennedy, “take pride in the words `Ich bin ein Berliner’.”

I’m one of them: Ich bin ein Berliner.

To find out how you can help Save Teufelsberg, please visit the Save Teufelsberg! website.

Thanks for inviting me to do this interview.

You’re welcome, and I appreciate you giving me the opportunity.

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About Lou Novacheck