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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Zoo Station, by David Downing ($14)(c2007)

In 1939 Berlin, World War II has not yet begun, but Europe is on the edge of madness. Hitler and his Nazis are terrorizing the Jews and other "imperfect" groups. Their influence is felt not just in Germany but also in Poland and Czechoslovakia. It is almost January 1, 1939, and Hitler has been in power for about five years when the book opens. Within a few months, Germany will invade Poland, and Great Britain will begin its war with Germany. Kristallnacht, the destruction of Jewish homes and businesses, the beating of Jewish people, the theft of Jewish property, is only a couple of months old. It is into this setting that David Downing places his protagonist, British journalist John Russell.

Russell will not leave Berlin, although he easily could. In better times, he met and married Ilsa, a German woman, and they have a son, Paul. Russell is determined to stay in Paul's life, although he and Ilsa have divorced. Russell's girlfriend, actress Effi Koenen, is another anchor to Berlin.

Russell does mostly freelance work for various publications, so it is not unusual for him to be approached by an organization that wishes to hire his writing skills. However, it is the Russians who want a series of articles, for which they will pay well. Although his impecunious existence is a burden, Russell hesitates, but then he acquiesces, not without stipulations. He will most emphatically not be a spy for them. He will not be a spy for Great Britain or the U.S. either. Germany? Nein. It would be a less interesting book if eventually Russell didn't find himself tossed about by all these secretive forces.

Jews line up daily at the British embassy, and the line stretches further each day. As a way to supplement his income, Russell teaches Germans to speak English. As a result of a reference from a friend, he teaches the daughters of a Jewish family and gets to know the family well. They are trying desperately to emigrate, but before they can get anywhere, the father, a doctor, is accused of a crime. The 18-year-old son is on the run. The daughters and the mother cannot get visas. Russell could simply shake his head, sympathize, and go on with his work. Times are tough for everyone. Despite the danger to himself, however, Russell knows he cannot avoid the inevitable. His conscience says that he must do what he can to save this family, save himself, avenge the mysterious death of a colleague, and try to stay in Berlin with Paul and Effi.

It's a tall order.

David Downing describes a complex situation with clarity and without over-explaining the mutable geography and politics of the time. The story does not lose pacing as it focuses on the many groups affected by Hitler's march to war. Sometimes with just a single sentence, Downing can capture the essence of an issue. His smart and ironic observations are thought-provoking and entertaining. For instance:

"The film had been made on the sort of budget which would feed a small country, but was mercifully devoid of consciousness-raising pretensions. The consciousness-lowering effect was presumably accidental."

Downing has written three more books, all named after train/subway stations. In fact, the important Zoo Station stop in Berlin represents the turning point in the journeys of Russell and others.

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