Armageddon Reveals the Price of Building Peace

dust jacket of ArmageddonArmageddon is a sprawling novel set as World War II ends and the Soviets move to turn Europe into Communist satellites.

The themes Leon Uris raises are as familiar as today’s news, but easier to examine with a degree of objectivity in a 75-year-old setting.

War-weary Americans want to pull out of Germany and let the Germans fend for themselves. General A. J. Hansen begs  American politicians to plan for a post-war political settlement.  He sees withdrawal would give rise to a more serious threat than Hitler’s Reich.

Hansen assembles a team of experts lead in everything from electrical generation to municipal government to design a plan for governing Germany after the war. Hansen sends them to a Nazi stronghold where they deploy and refine their plan.

Then Hansen redirects them to Berlin to begin guiding the city into rebuilding on democratic principles before the Russians can build Berlin into a Communist satellite.

When the Russians block all land routes into the city, leaving Berliners to face starvation in the frigid winter, Hansen fights against Congressional and military leaders to win presidential approval to attempt to supply the city by air.

Although Hansen is behind most of the novel’s action, he’s rarely seen in the novel. Uris reserves the role of the hero for the team of men who put their individual expertise at the service of America. Uris lists yards of facts about the Berlin airlift, emphasizing the monumental achievement and personal self-effacement of the men who made it happen.­

It takes a rare kind of man to serve his country without the benefit of pyrotechnics or reward and a different kind of courage to keep your mouth shut and go on working and believing when you are positive those around you are wrong. We don’t have enough men of this kind of dedication.

by Leon Uris
Doubleday 1964
632 pages
1964 bestseller #4
My grade: B+

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold Still Thrills

Section of Berlin Wall still standing 20 years after wall broken down
Section of Berlin Wall still standing 20 years after the fall.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a tense, gritty thriller in which even the good guys can’t tell the other good guys from the bad guys.

John le Carré sets the opening scene at the Berlin Wall. British operative Alex Leamas watches helplessly as his best agent is killed attempting to escape from East Berlin.>

Recalled to London, Leamas becomes the central figure in an elaborate plot to discredit Mundt, the East German spymaster responsible for Reimeck’s death.

Leamas is a complex character: driven, humorless, sartorially and psychologically rumpled. Compared to Leamas, James Bond is a toy spy.

Control promises that after this last assignment, Leamas can “come in from the cold” to a life where he need not be callous. Leamas has met a girl who makes that picture look good.

Le Carré paces the novel well, throwing in enough red herrings to keep readers interested while making sure there are no breaks in the story line. Some of the plot complications are too convenient for plausibility, but you’ll be too absorbed in the story to see its flaws until you’ve finished the last chapter.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
John le Carré
New York: Coward-McCann
256 pages
1964 bestseller #1
My grade: B+

Photo Credit: Berlin Wall. Photo by Belobos of section of remaining wall near Checkpoint Charlie was taken 20 years after the wall fell.

 © 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Life’s permanent transients stay at Grand Hotel

The post restante address in Berlin for the cream  and climbers of European social life in the years between the world wars was the Grand Hotel. Historically and symbolically, it’s the ideal setting for Vicki Baum to explore the lives of a handful of life’s permanent transients.

After learning he has only a short time to live, bookkeeper Otto Kringelein has come to the Hotel to live a few weeks as a rich man in the fleshpots of the capital. Unknown to him, the boss of the plant where Kringelein has worked all his life is also staying at the hotel while trying to pull off a major business deal, despite his twin handicaps of honesty and stupidity.

The famous and fading ballerina Grusinskaya is at the Hotel, devoting all her energies to living up to the publicity of her prime. Present, too, is the handsome adventurer Baron Gaigern whose gang is preparing to turn Grusinskaya’s famous pearls to cash within hours after he discretely removes them from her room.

Dr. Otternschlag, disfigured and spiritually maimed in the Great War, notes their comings and goings from behind his newspaper in the lobby.  Within the space of a few days, each has a chance to change their lives significantly. Only one seizes the opportunity.

Grand Hotel has a bleak grittiness that fascinates only to leave a sour taste in the mind.  Baum’s  characters are such distinct individuals that the world’s failure to give them their due seems horrific.

Grand Hotel
by Vicki Baum
Trans. Basil Creighton
Grosset & Dunlap, 1931
309 pages
1931 bestseller #4