Today I’m talking with T.H.E. Hill, the award-winning author of two novels about Berlin. Hill’s first novel—Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary—is ostensibly about an Army Security Agency Russian linguist working the Berlin Spy Tunnel in the mid-1950s, but, according to Wikipedia, it is closer in reality to the mid-1970s. His second novel—The Day Before the Berlin Wall: Could We Have Stopped It?—is based on a “legend” that was still current among U.S. Army soldiers in Berlin in the mid-1970s. According to the legend, we had advance knowledge of the Berlin Wall, and we knew that the East-German troops who were going to build it had been told to halt construction if the Americans were to take aggressive action to stop them.
Hill’s forthcoming new novel—Reunification: A Monterey Mary Returns to Berlin—is also about Berlin.
Novacheck: Why this fascination with Berlin?
Hill: Berlin was the epicenter of the Cold War, and the Cold War and I grew up together. I was born during the Berlin Airlift, and came of age in a U.S. Army uniform inside the confines of the Berlin Wall. Now, Berlin is the capital of the “new,” reunited Germany, and the epicenter of the Eurozone Crisis. It’s a city that captures your imagination and won’t let go.
And it’s not just me. Berlin is the scene of the stories that German authors and screenwriters who are distilling the literary truth of German Reunification. Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye Lenin, Thomas Brussig’s Am kürzeren Ende der Sonnenallee (On the Shorter End of Sun Avenue), and the Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Picture of 2007, Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck are all set in Berlin. They are thought provoking, poignant literary and cinematographic treatments of German reunification from the German perspective.
So, while there is lots of competition to tell the story of German Reunificationfrom the German perspective, an American perspective on the reunification of Berlin is sadly lacking. For almost fifty years—from 1945 to 1994—there was a large and vibrant American Community in Berlin. I was once a part of it. It stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Berliners during the Berlin Airlift, and through the Berlin Wall from rise to fall. It deserves to have a literary resolution to its disappearance. That’s what I hope to do with Reunification.
So what’s the storyline?
It’s a multi-threaded story, based on the premise of an American who was stationed in divided Berlin during the 1970s returning to reunified Berlin on an academic Fellowship to write a book about how the Stasi dealt with dissidents. As he works on the book, however, it becomes clear that there are broader implications about the role of the CIA, from which Mike, the first-person narrator, has retired.
The next major thread is romantic. The novel opens at a reception where Mike is “reunited” with Ilse. She was his girlfriend during the time that he worked at the Army Security Agency Field Station in Berlin. She is not pleased to see him, and breaks a plate across his face to emphasize the point. The reader wants to know why she did that, but she’s not talking, and neither is he, because his jaw is taped shut to help the cut from the broken plate heal. They have to figure out if there is still an “us” in their relationship.
The other big thread of the novel is a spy whodunit. When the narrator reads his own Stasi file, he discovers that somebody was reporting on him while he was in the Army in Berlin. Since nobody ever really retires from intelligence work, he can’t rest until he finds out who it was. The prime suspect is Ilse, but he refuses to believe it was her, and sets off through the dark inner recesses of his memory in search of other suspects, and there are plenty to be found in the rogue’s gallery of characters that he served with in the Army Security Agency. With his case-officer hat on, he imagines whom he could have recruited, if Field Station Berlin had been on his target list.
As more clues come out of the reconstructs produced by the special software that the Fraunhofer Institute developed to reassemble to files that the Stasi case officers shredded just before the GDR collapsed entirely, Mike develops a clearer picture of MUZIEK, the cover-name for the Stasi source who was reporting on him. The detection required to solve the whodunit mystery is molded on the classic fair-play mystery novels of detectives like Ellery Queen, whose works present the reader with all the same clues that the detective has, so as to give the reader a chance to solve an intellectually challenging puzzle along with the detective.