Simon Urban, Plan D (German original published by Schoeffling, 2011; English translation by Katy Derbyshire for Harvill Secker, 2013) 4 stars
Opening line: Wegener undid the flies of his cords, pulled out his p*nis with two fingers and relaxed.
It’s 2011 and the Berlin Wall is still standing. Welcome to the alternative world of Plan D, by German writer Simon Urban, in which the 1990 reunification of Germany never took place, East and West Germany remain uneasy neighbours, and fifty-six year-old East German Volkspolizei (People’s Police) captain Martin Wegener is about to embark on the strangest investigation of his career.
Called to a crime scene on the outskirts of East Berlin, Wegener finds an elderly man hanging from a pipeline that exports gas from Russia across the German-German border. It looks like a murder with political dimensions, making the case ultra-sensitive for all concerned, and to top it all, suave West German police detective Richard Brendel is attached to the investigative team, to help resolve the case ahead of some important East-West talks. That’s when the fun really begins.
The first duty of any alternative history is to feel credible, and Plan D very successfully evokes a jaded East Germany that is now over six decades old and teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The novel shows how the East German dictatorship and its relationship with West Germany might plausibly have evolved in modern political contexts, and also stresses the bleakness of everyday East German life, with the activities of the Stasi (the East German security police) continuing to cast a lengthy shadow. In this dystopian world, there’s room neither for Ostalgie – the nostalgia for life in East Germany that arguably marks films such as Goodbye Lenin! (2003) and Sonnenallee (1999) – nor for the soft-hearted Stasi operative of Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006). Instead, we’re shown the stifling confinement of the dictatorship and the impossibility of total trust between individuals, with Wegener taking on the role of the ‘distrustful detective’ forced to embark on a journey into the heart of darkness. More broadly, the novel draws on historican Eric Hobsbawn’s vision of the 20th century as an age of ideological extremes, with the former Nazi Reichsbank now housing the state’s SED Central Committee (which it really did), and the depiction of Wegener’s former colleague Früchtl as a former-Nazi-turned-Communist-policeman who disappeared in shady circumstances in 2010.
The novel combines hard-boiled, noir humour (shades of Philip Kerr’s detective Bernie Gunther) and an exuberant, satirical writing style with elements of the grotesque (a nod to German writers such as Günter Grass and Edgar Hilsenrath). Hats off to translator Katy Derbyshire for communicating the original style with such flair. Urban also acknowledges the American writer Michael Chabon at the end of the book, and I’m guessing that The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was a particular influence, as its crime narrative is also set in an alternative post-war era. Surprisingly, however, there’s no mention of Robert Harris’s 1992 Fatherland, the gold-standard alternative history in which Hitler’s Germany is shown to have won the Second World War. In common with Fatherland, Plan D opens with the murder of an elderly man with a political past, prompting the investigator to search for a deeper truth, which in turn leads to major revelations about the state. For me, the influence of the former is very clear – and is a welcome one. (For info, an article in which I examine Fatherland in detail has just been published in the journal Comparative Literature Studies – more on that soon.)
There was only one aspect of Plan D that left me feeling uncomfortable, and that was the highly s*xualised depiction of the character Karolina. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is meant to be understood symbolically, but the jury’s still out a little for me. The novel is also extremely long. I’m not sure whether this is actually a drawback: while the manuscript might have benefited from a little trim, for this reader the 500 plus pages whizzed by.
Overall, I loved Plan D. For me, a significant portion of reading pleasure came from my prior knowledge of East Germany, which helped me to understand the novel’s in-jokes and biting satire in a way that those unfamiliar with the history of East and West Germany might not. So that everyone can join in the fun and appreciate the genuine wit and clever-ness of the novel, I’m taking the unusual step of publishing a companion post – a GDR glossary for Plan D. The theme tune to the ‘East German James Bond’ TV series is particularly worth a listen. Viel Spass! Enjoy!
My thanks to Harvill Secker for providing a review copy. The novel is published in all formats on 20th June.
Mrs. Peabody awards Plan D an ambitious, absorbing and entertaining 4 stars.