Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Voices Under Berlin

Voices Under Berlin:
The Tale of a Monterey Mary

by T. H. E. Hill

(CreateSpace / 1-434-83973-7 / 978-1-434-83973-2 / January 2008 / 312 pages / $14.95)

Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM

Voices Under Berlin is a wry and deadpan account of a very particular place at a very particular time – Berlin under allied occupation in the mid 1950s, when the Cold War was coming up to a steady, simmering boil – and the city was divided into four different sectors: American, British, French and Russian. The Berlin Wall had not yet been built, large chunks of Berlin were still in ruins from WWII, American GIs were technically forbidden to fraternize with German women, and the various intelligence organizations were playing all kinds of deadly serious games against each other, with varying degrees of success.

One of those operations involved a tunnel dug from a specially constructed warehouse with an unusually deep cellar, in order to install a tap on landlines used by the Russians. For better than a year, telephone calls were listened to and recorded, transcribed, and carefully sifted for essential bits of information. Subtitled “The Tale of a Monterey Mary”, this is about the group of military members at the sharp and pointy end of that particular spear over the course of their tour in Berlin. These are, for the most part, those who listened to the tapes, translated and transcribed, or those whose task it was to keep them all pointed more or less in the same direction. Other characters, who emerge through the transcriptions of their telephone conversations, are various Russian officers - the voices under Berlin. For purely civilian readers and at this date, some five decades later, it is just as well that this novel starts with an extensive glossary. Most terms, other than those specific to that location at that specific time, are familiar to anyone who has been in the military, but the purely civilian reader would most likely otherwise be at sea.

The plot, such as it is, hangs on a pair of strands; first, the existence of the tunnel itself – can it be kept secret, and for how long, in a place where the Russians are constantly probing for information, seeking out willing traitors and testing the other allies’ intelligence services. The other continuing plot strand is: which one of the handful of American characters has been targeted by the Russians, the object of a ‘honey-pot’ scheme, wherein his German girlfriend is actually a Russian agent tapping him for information? Small clues as to the activities and whereabouts of the woman involved dropped throughout, in transcribed conversations. Is it the talkative student Gabbie, who is actually having a sweet and traditional romance with Kevin, the brilliant Russian-language expert, who is so adept at transcribing the tapes and so familiar with some of the voices on them that he has begun to think of them as personal friends? What about Blackie, whose nickname might come from his penchant for black-marketing, or for a practical joke involving rubbing sheets of used carbon paper onto the earpieces of his headset? He has a German girlfriend and so does the unspeakable Lt. Sherlock, the military martinet with no perceivable talents save for that of being able to walk away unscathed from the disasters large and small that he himself has caused. The potential security breach probably isn’t Fast Eddie, the married sergeant whose wife works at the PX Theater, or the crusty career soldier Master-Sergeant Laufflaecker, he of the parade-ground command voice and limitless ability to scrounge the when it is absolutely, positively necessary. And it most definitely not is the irascible and experienced Chief of Base, with his penchant for appearing in disguise and his dictate that whosoever acquires a German girlfriend will be reassigned so fast they will have whiplash injuries.

The narrative follows the course of a year, enlivened with many seemingly vintage photos of places, objects and people relevant to the story, as well as accounts of a staggeringly varied number of practical jokes. Never underestimate the creative lengths to which extremely intelligent and bored military personnel will go to amuse themselves, especially when confined to spending hours and hours on duty, in the main just watching for something to happen; elaborate charades to divert (or scare the pants off of) the bored East German military, watching the site from a tall guard tower, the briefing book cooked up for a totally imaginary Russian unit supposedly stationed just across the way, or even just loosening an essential screw in someone else’s headset. Some of these japes are ancient, yet ever renewed by a fresh generation, sent off post-haste on their first day for a fifty-foot length of flight line and a bucket of prop-wash. Voices Under Berlin is well worth the time, to a veteran and non-veteran alike, for a glimpse into another world, another war, half a century ago. My copy came with a companion book, a collection of Army information booklets passed out to American troops assigned to Berlin around the time that Voices was set. It is the sort of material usually termed ‘ephemera’ – a revealing slice of a long-gone milieu, which will seem purely incredible to those who only know the present reunified and independent Berlin.

See Also: Celia's BNN Review
The Author's Website
Review of T.H.E. Hill's Reunification

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