Book review: ‘Potsdam Station’

May 8, 2011

Talk about the wrong place at the wrong time: Berlin in the spring of 1945 ranks high on any list of historical hellholes. During the waning days of the war in Europe, So­viet troops flattened the city even as Hitler’s propaganda machine cranked out inanely optimistic rumors of an imminent victory. Hitlerjugend — adolescent boys devoted to the Fuehrer — were ordered to flesh out the depleted ranks of the infantry. Women, children and the elderly scrambled for shelter in basements and railroad tunnels, bleakly anticipating retribution from the Russians, who had lost roughly one-eighth of their country’s population in the war. “For months,” David Downing writes, “the favorite joke among Berliners had been ‘enjoy the war — peace will be dreadful.’ ” And yet, despite the horrors of wartime Berlin, Anglo-American journalist John Russell is frantic to find a way to get there.

Reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Zelig, Russell, the hero of Downing’s espionage series, can’t seem to resist inserting himself into climactic moments of the 20th century.

Potsdam Station” is the fourth novel in Downing’s fine, Berlin-train-station-titled series about Russell and his accidental adventures during World War II. When the series debuted with “Zoo Station,” set in 1939, Russell, a left-leaning globe-trotter, was trying to figure out how to remain in Germany while other foreign correspondents skedaddled. He had personal reasons for staying put: He had an adolescent son, Paul, by his German ex-wife (who went on to marry a Nazi), and he was in love with an actress, Effi Koe­nen, a rising star in Joseph Goebbels’s film empire.

Fast-forward three more books: Reluctantly recognizing the wisdom of saving his own neck, Russell left his loved ones and has been away from Berlin for three years. During that time, young Paul has hardened into a battle-scarred German soldier of 18, and the once-glamorous Effi has become weathered by the dangers of helping a resistance group hide the city’s remaining Jews. Russell hasn’t seen Paul or Effi since he fled Germany, but he knows that if his loved ones survived, they’ll be targets of whatever terrors the Russians inflict on the vanquished.

Russell talks his way onto trains and planes that take him from the Western Allies’ military headquarters in Reims, France, to Moscow, where he strikes a deal with Soviet officials: He’ll help a spy team steal atom-bomb-related papers from a Nazi lab in Berlin in return for the opportunity to search for Paul and Effi. This preposterous scheme is made even riskier by Russell’s suspicion that his Russian allies will dispose of him seconds after he helps them find the top-secret documents.

Downing has been classed in the elite company of literary spy masters Alan Furst and Philip Kerr; while his novels are more contrived than theirs and less inclined to delve into the characters’ psyches, that flattering comparison is generally justified. If Downing is light on character study, he’s brilliant at evoking even the smallest details of wartime Berlin on its last legs. Here’s a passage midway through the novel, in which Paul and an underage comrade-in-arms nervously navigate their way through the ruined cityscape:

“Soon after midnight they emerged from a side street onto the wide Rudower Strasse, which stretched north toward Neukoelln and the city centre. It was full of people and vehicles, military and civilian, almost all heading north. The edges of the road were littered with those who would go no further — a dead man still seated at the wheel of his roofless car, a whimpering horse with only two legs. And every now and then a Soviet plane would dive out of the moon, and release a few souls more.”

The Berlin of “Potsdam Station” figures as a grim game board around which Russell chases rumors of Effi and Paul — a few paces forward here, some doubling back there — only to just miss them (or, perhaps, their shadows) while he eludes Nazis and his erstwhile Russian compatriots. Given the limited cast of characters, Downing must draw on almost Dickensian reserves of coincidences and close calls to sustain the suspense of his basic hide-and-seek story line. That he does ingeniously. It helps to read Downing’s novels in order, but if “Potsdam Station” is your first foray into Russell’s escapades, be forewarned that you may soon feel compelled to undertake a literary reconnaissance mission to retrieve and read the earlier books.

Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.

POTSDAM STATION

By David Downing

Soho. 340 pp. $25

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