Book Review: A Small Town in Germany – Return of the Nazis?

Readers of my reviews have no doubt noticed that not all the books I recommend are new releases. This is a throwback that echoes today's headlines. My reviews reflect my personal reading habits, and often I find myself digging into my shelves, either to rediscover books I didn’t finish or that deserve another, perhaps more leisurely, reading.

A Small Town in Germany was first published in 1968 (Penguin)

I’ve read just about everything by John Le Carré (aka David Cornwell), and I’ve said in print many times that I regard him as a master of not just spy fiction, but also literary fiction. In his George Smiley novels, he captured the inherent evils of bureaucracy, along with the paradox of love and betrayal, in the metaphor of the Cold War. Since then, in The Night Manager and A Delicate Truth (reviewed here), he exposed the institutional hypocrisies of the War on Terror, particularly the new triangle trade of arms-for-cash-for-cocaine that apparently has corrupted not only politicians but also the big banks and intelligence agencies.

A Delicate Truth exposes a fictional failed mission in the War on Terror (Thorndike/Penguin)

A Small Town in Germany is one of Le Carré ’s first novels, written not long after he left the employ of the British Foreign Service in 1964. One of his first postings was in Bonn, the postwar capital city of West Germany and the “small town” of the title.

Although I have been effusive in my praise for Le Carré ’s writing style, my one criticism of this book is its occasionally strained efforts at poetic imagery. At times in his later career, the novelist’s prose has been too spare. But in this early work, he’s reaching for colorful analogies. The results too often come across as overwritten:

No dawn is ever wholly ominous. The earth is too much its own master; the cries, the colours, and the scents too confident to sustain our grim foreboding.

The fictional premise is that Dr. Klaus Karfeld, a crowd-pleasing politician, is rising to power on a wave of renewed German nationalism. A younger generation resents economic malaise and their parents’ having lost the war. Karfeld promises to break off ties with the Common Market (predecessor of the European Union) and pursue a new alliance with Russia. The principal characters in the story are diplomats stationed at the British Embassy, who are bewildered and threatened by the impending power shifts, including possible retaliation against the English occupiers.

John Le Carre (aka David Cornwell) MI6 agent turned novelist (The Independent)

Most worrisome to these Brits, one of their employees, Leo Harting, a Polish-born German, has gone missing. Apparently, he took some secret files. They worry that the information in those files might not only embarrass the Queen’s government, but also help Karfeld in his rise to power and repudiation of NATO.

Welshman Alan Turner, an undercover operative, is summoned on an unofficial mission to find the missing man and the stolen files. Turner has all the skills – along with the surly and irreverent personality – of the classic noir detective. (As far as I know, he doesn’t reappear in any of the other Le Carré novels.)

Turner runs afoul of just about everyone at the embassy – especially when he learns that, far from being a spy, Harting was hunting war criminals. He had uncovered Karfeld’s secret past as a Nazi scientist. Turner’s job changes from searching for a presumed defector to trying to prevent Karfeld’s goons from finding and then killing Harting.

What if a war criminal escaped detection and later ran for office? Goering, Hess, von Ribbentrop, and Keitel in front row at Nuremberg trials circa 1946 (Wiki Commons)

The cynical Turner begins to realize that the Brits want the missing files but not the man who took them. And, most disturbing of all, they don’t want Karfeld’s crimes dredged up, even if it means Harting’s death. The Karfeld movement has gained too much popularity. The pragmatic diplomats are apparently ready to embrace the election’s expected winner – even though they know he once supervised a laboratory that tested the homicidal effects of poison gas.

It was coincidence that I picked up this book again recently.

Perhaps you’ve guessed by now why I think this story resonates with today’s headlines.

Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the recent historical novel Bonfire of the Vanderbilts and host of GetPublished! Radio.

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