Last year I went to visit Berlin for the first time over a long weekend. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a city that’s still so haunted by the after effects of war. Certainly there is more to this thriving city which is dynamic and fascinating in many ways but walking through the streets there are evident battle scars around every corner. Of course, it’s perfectly understandable that this would be the case because it was turned into a battlefield during WWII and then became a city literally divided by the Cold War. Given these facts it’d be virtually impossible to write about Berlin in the late 20th century without referring to the reverberating effects of these traumas.
Ben Fergusson rightly does so in both his first novel “The Spring of Kasper Meier” which describes the city soon after it was jointly occupied by the Allied powers and in his new novel “An Honest Man” which takes place in the time immediately preceding The Berlin Wall’s collapse in 1989. But these stories are filled with so many twists and surprises that they give a fascinating new perspective on this vibrant capital. He captures the lives of ordinary citizens in this shifting political landscape and focuses specifically on the lives of gay men during these periods. “An Honest Man” is centred around the life of Ralf, a teenager in Berlin with an English mother and German father. When Ralf encounters a Turkish man named Osman at a swimming pool he becomes embroiled in both a passionate love affair and a mysterious tale of espionage which completely upturns his life. It’s an utterly gripping tale of self-discovery and intrigue.
What’s often so striking reading about the lives of young people in such a politically contentious area is that the reality of its accompany tensions have become so completely normalised. Of course it seems normal to them because it’s all they’ve ever known. So for Ralf and his close group of friends who spend their summer going to the pool or watching arthouse films thrust upon them by Ralf’s cultured friend Stefan the fact of the wall’s presence is something glancingly referred to as they go about their lives preparing to go to university or pursuing their studious fascination with the natural world. The politics of it colour everything about their lives but doesn’t really impact them – until Ralf gets involved in spying on someone who may or may not be a Soviet informant. I admire how Fergusson evokes their lives fully capturing the sensory experience of this time and place.
There have been many coming of age novels written about gay men discovering their sexuality. But I appreciate how Fergusson gives a different spin describing the contoured dynamics of Ralf’s desires. He finds himself drawn to men yet he’s had a very close emotional and sexual relationship with his girlfriend Maike who is a fascinating character in her own right. He also has a strong platonic friendship with Stefan. But when Ralf finds a sexual connection with Osman the author evocatively describes the all-consuming freedom and heated passion of their relationship. It immediately overturns all the homophobic sentiments Ralf had previously expressed for a newfound acceptance of himself. Of course, this liberation doesn’t instantly make him into an entirely good person. The fact that Ralf is something of a dick (as his actions are frequently described throughout the novel) adds to the way he feels fully rounded and, like most teenagers, often more preoccupied with his own interests rather than the feelings of those closest to him.
I recall watching news footage of The Berlin Wall’s destruction when I was a child in 1989 and I remember wondering what it must have been like for all those people who finally didn’t have to live with this immense physical and political barrier any longer. So it was thrilling when the reality of this event is described in a climatic scene towards the end of the novel showing all the chaos and release of emotion which accompanied this new freedom of movement. “An Honest Man” achieves what’s best about historical fiction as it makes you reconsider how the dramatic events surrounding a large-scale political upheaval had different effects upon the lives of so many people who found themselves at the centre of it. And it does so with a story that’s both thrilling and filled with sensual delights.