Talking Location With author Charlotte Rixon – Newcastle
Thriller set in 1947 Berlin (ashes to ashes…). Plus chat with author, Luke McCallin
22nd December 2016
The Ashes of Berlin by Luke McCallin – thriller set in 1947 Berlin.
The Ashes of Berlin is set in the immediate, and chaotic, aftermath of WW2. Most Berlin books I have read cover the period of the Cold War but The Ashes of Berlin precedes this… People could still travel freely around Berlin (but not outside the city into the surrounding Soviet Zone). The Russians had been first into Berlin at the end of the War, but several months later – and by negotiation – the British, the Americans, and the French took over the administration of various sectors in the city. It was a chaotic time, with only the minimum of effective laws in place (despite the best efforts of the Allies). Control of policing the German population of Berlin was handed back to the local police, but the force was riddled with corruption with individual officers placed in their roles by their particular Allied ‘friends’. Most of the pre-war police had long faded away… The black market thrived (often with the assistance of allied troops selling on goods from their homelands…)
Two men are brutally murdered in the Neukölln area, and Inspector Gregor Reinhardt investigates. Gregor is a WW1 veteran, and a basically honest and good man – although not universally liked because of his American ‘sponsors’. One of the bodies turns out to be that of a British investigator. Why was he there and what was he investigating? These are not the only bodies – others appear. They (apart from the agent) are all killed in the same way, but what is the connection between the victims? Gregor’s investigation proceeds apace, with ‘help’ from those high up in the British, American, and Soviet administrations – all of whom want something in return as he searches for the perpetrator. He plays a dangerous game of limited truths. As the story progresses he forms a firm friendship with a British agent called Markworth. But is Markworth all he seems to be? Eventually he tracks down the serial killer and, at the same time, breaks a Nazi cell still operating in Berlin. The Ashes of Berlin is a fast moving and well written thriller set in very uncertain and complex times.
But, for me, it is a great deal more than that – the book catches perfectly the TripFiction raison d’être. My German mother-in-law in 1946, after the end of hostilities, walked from the Baltic coast to Berlin to hook up with her aunt. The book gives me a very clear insight into the place that she must have encountered when she arrived. And my daughter is now living in Friedrichshain (well described in the book) – an area that fell to the Russians as they swept in from the East in 1945. Babies were swapped around by the local inhabitants because (fact or myth…) the ‘Ivans’ wouldn’t harm anyone carrying a child… It morphed next into an East Berlin working class area, and is now experiencing a somewhat Bohemian gentrification – with independent coffee shops rather than a Starbucks on every corner!
The Ashes of Berlin is a very exciting and worthwhile read… And it is easy to find your way around, and follow the story geographically. The inside front cover of the book is a Berlin U-Bahn (underground railway) map of the system as it was in 1947, and the inside back cover of the book is a map showing the various allied sectors. Great for armchair travellers…
Tony for the TripFiction team
Over to Luke who talks to us about the city of Berlin in our #TalkingLocationWith… feature.
Whereas I was fortunate enough to have worked in Bosnia for six years, and so was able to use much of what I had seen and learned and done in crafting The Man from Berlin and The Pale House, I was faced with a very different situation for The Ashes of Berlin. When considering occupied Germany and Berlin and the postwar years, you can be overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of information. I made the decision early on that The Ashes of Berlin would not be a novel about postwar Germany: instead, it would be the story of one man’s investigation through Berlin in early 1947.
TF: Yes? And who is this ‘man’…?
Gregor Reinhardt is a Berlin detective chased out of the police by the Nazis. He joins the Army as an intelligence officer, later becomes a military policeman, and when the war ends he returns home to Berlin, and rejoins the police under American sponsorship.
I was careful to relate events through Reinhardt’s eyes, resisting the temptation to wrap everything in allegory. In writing The Ashes of Berlin, I took account of my own limitations in understanding Berlin, and Berliners. I was never going to live there like I’d lived in Bosnia, and no amount of reading can substitute for living and feeling, letting a city and its people sink and seep into you. It was something I even slipped into Reinhardt’s own character, like in this scene with his landlady.
‘The man was a Berliner. But there was something in his voice. In his accent. Something else. Some other influence. I could be wrong.’
‘You’re a Berliner born and bred, Mrs Meissner. You would know.’
‘You sound different, Gregor,’ she answered. ‘Seven years elsewhere, I can hear other places in your voice, now. But then,’ she said, smiling softly to take any sting out of her words, ‘you never were much of a Berliner. Far too polite.’
TF: So you don’t feel you know Berlin. What do you know, then…?
I know about occupation.
Because in Bosnia, I had been an occupier. A benevolent one, but an occupier nonetheless. There was not much I couldn’t do, not many places I couldn’t go, and not much that could be done to me. So I tried to see Reinhardt’s Berlin through the lens of occupation. Living under it, living with it, living with its restrictions.
Even with those limitations on my writing, what fun I had with the research, and with visiting Berlin! It’s an extraordinary place. It’s not the most beautiful of cities. Too much war damage, too much Cold War neglect, and too much frenzied post-unification construction, but it does have its jewels. The Tiergarten. Mitte and its monuments and museums. The lakes outside the city. I find as well it’s recent past—unification, the fall of the Wall, the Cold War, the Second World War, the Nazis—can blind you to its deeper past. Weimar, the First World War, the Hohenzollerns, Bismarck, the wars of unification, Napoleon, Prussia…
When you’re there, you are constantly having to hold yourself in check from exploring all these historical avenues because they’re not part of the book. So don’t go wandering down that Berlin Wall walking trail, Luke, because it wasn’t built when Reinhardt was chasing killers through the city’s rubble…!
Some places really stood out for me, and were emblematic of the research I did for the novel, and also emblematic of some of the characters. One is the Bunkerberg—or Mont Klamott—in Volkspark Friedrichschain in East Berlin. A hill made out of the millions of cubic feet of rubble that the Soviets piled around a 40 metre-high flak tower! The tower was made of reinforced concrete, and so virtually indestructible—although the British managed to blow up the one in their Sector at the second attempt—and so the Soviets decided to bury it. The East German dissident, Wolf Biermann, made Mont Klamott part of one of his most famous songs.
‘The pigeons and the sparrows –
The first buds burst
On rubble and on scrap
At Mont Klamott.’
If you climb the hill, you can step off the path and scrape a bit at the ground. You won’t have to dig very far before you hit rubble…! Reinhardt himself ponders this as he sees the tower being buried, wondering what will grow over it, and what future generations will know about the very ground they walk on.
Another place I like to visit is the Red Army memorial in the Tiergarten. The Soviets sited it at the precise juncture where the north-south and east-west axis of Hitler’s mad redevelopment plan for Berlin would have come together. It was built within months of the end of the war, its walls inscribed with names of the fallen. It’s a strange place: quiet, reflective, a bit of an oasis in the middle of the hive of Berlin, but you can imagine the statement the Soviets made in building it there. Right there. As if to say, despite all that happened, we prevailed. It’s also one of those quirky places in Berlin, in history. The memorial was actually built in the British Sector of Berlin, but there was an arrangement to have a Red Army honour guard posted at all times. Even after the Wall went up, the arrangement continued. So when you see Ronald Reagan making his famous ‘tear down this Wall’ speech from Berlin, there were Red Army soldiers not that far away from him, on his side of the Wall! In the fourth Reinhardt novel, one of his contacts—a Soviet major called Skokov—offers to help him, there. Skokov points to one of the names of the fallen, a friend of his, and says his friend would not forgive him if he did not help Reinhardt with his investigation.
So, Berlin… History all around. No wonder it’s such fertile ground for the imagination…!
Thanks so much to Luke for such an imaginative exploration of the wonderful city of Berlin!
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