Sunday, December 15, 2013


Reunification: A Monterey Mary Returns to Berlin  
by T.H.E. Hill
(CreateSpace / 1-490-49026-4 / 978-1-490-49026-7 / July 2013 / 226 pages / $12.95 / $11.66 Amazon)

Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM

“Alas, poor Cold War, I knew it well. It was a war of infinite jest and most excellent fancy, fought more often in the shadows of the mind than to death, yet the lives of millions hung in the balance. It is a war without monuments, but not without casualties…”

Long-retired from the CIA, Mike Troyan returns to Berlin, where he once served as a military linguist – a Monterey Mary – at the Army Field Station in the 1970s. Now comfortably ensconced in academia, he intends to write a book about the Stasi, the East German secret police, and do a great deal of research in the Stasi archives, where the files they kept on almost anyone of interest have been pieced back together. But on his return he is almost immediately walloped by the realization that there was an informant among his comrades at the Army Field Station, an informant code-named MUSIK. He is also walloped in the face with a plate of currywurst by the mother of the head of the Stasi archives… a woman of his age who just happens to be his one-time Berlin girlfriend.

And with that, Mike begins unpacking and reviewing his suitcase of memories of divided Berlin, memories which are poignantly at odds with the present-day rebuilt, revived, and reunified Berlin. Everything he once knew so very well is either gone or changed almost beyond recognition; the Wall itself is gone, Checkpoint Charlie is a tourist attraction with the golden arches of a McDonalds’ in the background and manned by a pair of badly uniformed actors who pose for pictures with tourists, and one of the main recreational centers for American personnel in Berlin is now something called the “Dahlem Urban Village.”  “The sidewalk was full of people speaking German as they went about their business. All of them were unaware that they were walking down a street full of English-speaking ghosts who shimmered before me on their way to a PX that didn’t exist any more.” And when Mike’s daughter, Samantha comes to Berlin, about halfway through the book, the plot just thickens.

He remembers that particularly vivid past, as he tours present-day Berlin, by himself or with Samantha  – and accounts of the antics of his fellows at Army Field Station are interspersed now and again with how ominous the Stasi was to ordinary Berliners.” “The Stasi could make things not happen,” says one of the former East Berliners that he meets in his peregrinations about the city that he once knew so very well. “Your kids would not get into college. That apartment for which you were  three years on a waiting list was no longer available. The new car that you had paid for in full at the start of a six-year waiting list for delivery was suddenly delayed or postponed… and there was nothing you could do. There was no legal recourse because nothing could be done. There was nothing you could prove. There were no documents.”  For my money, that kind of impersonally deliberate bureaucratic malice is at least as chilling as the threat of overt violence, interrogation, and imprisonment with the threat of a capital sentence.

And now, to people the age of Mike’s daughter, what was once a very real menace is completely toothless, a rather shabby joke when not a focus for a weird kind of nostalgia. Only people the age of Mike and some of his old friends remember that it was all in grim earnest, as concrete as The Wall itself. One day, out of the clear blue sky, it all came down, dissolving into little chips of brick and concrete, valueless coins and clumsy relics like East German-made telephones (pre-bugged) and Trabant automobiles.

Reunification is quite readable, and nicely-plotted: part puzzle, part travelogue, part memoir and part history, with some quite nice turns of phrase, some of which I have quoted here. Mike on setting to work at the archives: “I’d worked in the salt mines of bureaucracy long enough to know the coin of the realm, and how to mint it.” For me, the passages which resounded were the melancholy episodes of re-visiting old haunts; just about every base which I served at in the 1970s and 1980s is either closed entirely, re-purposed by the host government or changed beyond all recognition. You cannot go home again, for strangers have taken it over.

Any criticism I have is directed at the basic formatting of the text itself; the margins are narrow, there is unnecessary spacing between lines and paragraphs, and the use of random fonts to indicate a shift from the present to the past, or to indicate a written document, is a little jarring. There are also inexplicable switches between the English and German conventions for quote marks around dialog. This does not reflect on the quality of writing or ability to tell an engaging story, but it does detract from aesthetic appreciation of the printed version’s pages. 

See Also: Voices Under Berlin, a 2009 PODBRAM Award Winner  

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