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Every so often a book comes along which is so fascinating, so engaging, so full of life that no matter how long it is, you're left wanting more when you reach the end.
This is not that book.
Which is a shame: because The Good German is exactly the sort of book I like to read. A murder-mystery novel which attempts to blend a fictional tale with a past reality.
It is very reminiscent of some of Robert Harris' early novels - particularly Fatherland and Archangel. Set in the immediate aftermath of World War 2, it sees an American reporter investigating the murder of an American soldier in Berlin.
All of which sounds very promising and indeed, things start off pretty well. The undoubted success of The Good German is that it recreates post-war Berlin in highly convincing detail. Kanon dutifully describes the devastation, desolation, despair and destruction of Deutschland (sorry, came over all alliterative there). He has taken great care to reconstruct Berlin, clearly doing a great deal of research to establish the right atmosphere and to ensure historical accuracy. He sets his tale against the bigger backdrop of the war, the peace process and the Holocaust and whilst these events have no direct bearing on the plot, they do help to create a hugely realistic atmosphere.
The trouble is that's the nicest thing you can say about The Good German. After that, it's all downhill.
The problems start with the plot, which is neither particularly original, nor particularly engaging. The murder victim is someone we meet only briefly at the very start of the book, so there's no emotional attachment. When his body is washed up, there's no real reaction, because he is a nothing character - someone simply there to get the plot going. Subsequent revelations do little to endear him to us or engender any sense of sympathy towards his fate.
And the plot goes on and on and on... The book is over 500 pages long and it takes a long time for very little of interest to happen. For long stretches, it seems to be at a standstill, treading water. Occasionally, there is just the briefest of dangers that things might get interesting. Thankfully, Kanon quickly snuffs that threat out, lest we over-excite ourselves. More or less from start to finish, The Good German is a long, rambling, meandering tale which goes nowhere and takes a long time to do it.
The plot is also confusing and messy; Kanon seems to think that he has made convincing connections between the various elements, but in fact, they never truly link up properly. Neither the mystery, nor its revelation contain much of interest. Boredom sets in early and, apart from one or two minor sections, there is little to alleviate it.
Location descriptions aside, Kanon's prose proves unrelentingly turgid. He describes inconsequential matters in the tiniest of details, further adding to the pedestrian pace. Worse still, he writes in very long passages with only occasional breaks in the text. The copy I read had quite a small font and the text was densely packed. This makes it a very difficult book to read in small bursts, as you might be 20-30 pages away from the next suitable stopping point. Yet, the pace of the book is so slow that reading 20-30 pages at once becomes a real chore.
I could forgive some of these faults if the book had some interesting characters, but once again, The Good German fails to deliver. Most are so bland that it becomes difficult to remember who they are or what role they have to play in the plot. Characters wander in and out of the narrative, often going missing for 100 pages or more. When they re-appear, you are expected to remember them: Kanon reintroduces them without any sort of recap. This is something you can get away with if you have interesting characters. When they are virtually indistinguishable from each other, you can't. It was a source of immense frustration that I frequently had to flick back to try and remember who people were and where I had last seen them.
The Good German fails because, apart from the historically accurate setting, it just doesn't ring true. The central love story is so bland, insipid and predictable that you really don't care who ends up with whom or who lives and dies. Without that crucial element of emotional engagement, everything else just falls totally flat.
I approached The Good German with a great deal of optimism, but time and time again, it failed to deliver anything remotely approaching a readable book. Take out the vivid descriptions of post-war Germany and all you have left is 500 pages of nothing. And if historical facts had been mainly what I was after, I'd have turned to a history book.
I missed the film version of The Good German when it was released in the cinema. On the basis of this, that was a very lucky escape.
Good riddance to the Good German!
The Good German
Sphere Books, 2007
© Copyright SWSt 2009