'People don't notice whether it's winter or summer when they're happy.'
- Anton Chekhov


Leaving Berlin

Joseph Kanon

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Mar 03, 2015
Category: Fiction

American media loves horse races, which is a good reason to avoid watching political pundits on cable TV. Book reviewers have resisted this reductionist way of considering writers, but in recent years I’ve seen Alan Furst and Joseph Kanon often mentioned in the same sentence. Furst is generally regarded as America’s master of the historical spy novel, but Kanon has, with each book, steadily gained ground.

I’m a huge fan of Furst — I’ve praised this book and this book and this book — but his most recent novel was such a paint-by-numbers disaster I didn’t bother to review it.

Joseph Kanon and I were college friends. In 1997, when he published his first novel, I interviewed him. I’ve read most of his books since them, and reviewed Istanbul Passage.

“Leaving Berlin” is a big book that will put Kanon even with Furst, or maybe ahead. (For me, “big” means 371 pages.) It’s got a terrific plot hook — Alex Meier, a German-Jewish writer who fled the Nazis, gets into political trouble in the United States, and, in 1949, at the height of the Berlin Airlift, returns to live in his native city. If he can give useful information to American spymasters, he can return to Los Angeles and his young son; as he’s not a writer of spy thrillers, he’s a bit over his head. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Kanon has written about postwar Berlin before — The Good German is set there. (It became a movie, starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett.) The grey chill of the cover photo is also in Kanon’s prose; on every page, you feel the shabbiness of the housing, the shortage of food and electricity, and, mostly, the oppressive presence of the Russians. It’s a bitter irony; the Nazi thugs have been replaced by Russian goons. Idealism? The new Socialist paradise? By 1949, even the most dedicated Socialists know better: “Nobody ever said it would be easy… A just society must be worth a few sacrifices, no?”

Alex Meier arrives with a realist’s view of the East German authorities. (In Washington, he’d been grilled by Joe McCarthy’s interrogators. “He’d seen the faces before, the jowls and smirks, when they’d been Nazis.”) He is less armored against friends from his much happier early years, and it’s no surprise that he takes up with a woman who was his first lover. But in a Kanon novel, identity is a mask. People are rarely who they seem to be. His lover, especially, but really, everyone. (Even Bertolt Brecht, a prickly genius of astonishing selfishness, isn’t quite as offensive — he rarely bathed and stank like a badger — as historical accounts describe him.)

Because almost everyone has at least two faces, the book is an onion that slowly gets peeled. For veteran readers of thrillers, this will be pure pleasure. For me, it’s a challenge — my novel has three major characters, and they struggle with their single identities. But with each Kanon novel, I’m getting smarter. Soon I may, like some of you, be able to read his elegant, complex novels without gasping every few pages.

Short takes

Is Thomas Keller’s Roast Chicken The Greatest Ever?

a two to three pound farm-raised chicken
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons minced thyme (optional)
Unsalted butter
Dijon mustard

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Rinse the chicken, then dry it very well with paper towels, inside and out. The less it steams, the drier the heat, the better.

Salt and pepper the cavity, then truss the bird. Trussing is not difficult, and if you roast chicken often, it’s a good technique to feel comfortable with. When you truss a bird, the wings and legs stay close to the body; the ends of the drumsticks cover the top of the breast and keep it from drying out. Trussing helps the chicken to cook evenly, and it also makes for a more beautiful roasted bird.

Salt the chicken. I rain the salt over the bird so that it has a nice uniform coating that will result in a crisp, salty, flavorful skin (about 1 tablespoon). When it’s cooked, you should still be able to make out the salt baked onto the crisp skin. Season to taste with pepper.

Place the chicken in a sauté pan or roasting pan and, when the oven is up to temperature, put the chicken in the oven. I leave it alone — I don’t baste it, I don’t add butter; you can if you wish, but I feel this creates steam, which I don’t want. Roast it until it’s done, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove it from the oven and add the thyme, if using, to the pan. Baste the chicken with the juices and thyme and let it rest for 15 minutes on a cutting board.

Remove the twine. Separate the middle wing joint and eat that immediately. Remove the legs and thighs. I like to take off the backbone and eat one of the oysters, the two succulent morsels of meat embedded here, and give the other to the person I’m cooking with. But I take the chicken butt for myself. I could never understand why my brothers always fought over that triangular tip—until one day I got the crispy, juicy fat myself. These are the cook’s rewards. Cut the breast down the middle and serve it on the bone, with one wing joint still attached to each. The preparation is not meant to be super-elegant. Slather the meat with fresh butter. Serve with mustard on the side and, if you wish, a simple green salad. You’ll start using a knife and fork, but finish with your fingers, because it’s so good.

I just saw The Best Film of The New Year (You’d Never Guess)

Having completed a long and generally unhappy slog through the Oscar-nominated films, my wife and I found ourselves leaving home on a frigid Saturday night to see The Best Film of the New Year — “Paddington.” You mock. Well, the joke’s on you. “Paddington” is considerably more — what’s the word we rarely hear about movies? — enjoyable than any of the films you’re supposed to be obsessing about. That is: sophisticated, witty, sly, original. Even beautiful. Entertaining in every possible way. The Times: “a knockout blend of fluid animation and live action.” Audience reviews: It’s the 3rd top grossing film of the weekend. Our puberty-ravaged 13-year-old texted us: “You’re seeing this without me? Mean!” So we’re going again. Happily.

Lyrics by Bob Dylan, Music by Marcus Mumford

Performed by Marcus Mumford. At the end, is that sweat in his eye — or tears? (Yes, that’s Johnny Depp on guitar.)