A book I truly adore is just out now: Simon Urban’s Plan D. It’s a remarkable genre-busting detective novel set in Berlin in October 2011. There’s one slight difference though – the GDR still exists.
Martin Wegener is a detective with the Köpenick branch of the People’s Police, called in to investigate the death of a mystery man found hanging from a gas pipeline in the forest. All the initial clues point to the Stasi, which is still in operation although less powerful than before the ‘Revitalisation’ in the early 1990s. With important economic consultations between the new West German chancellor Oskar Lafontaine and the East German party chairman Egon Krenz coming up, a West German police officer is called in to assist after the news is leaked to Spiegel magazine.
The two men start their investigations, more hindered than helped by the Stasi, uncovering a terrorist opposition organisation and a separate conspiracy to introduce a ‘third way’ in the GDR – the Plan D of the title (D standing for Deutschland, right?). Bombs go off, spirits are drunk, sausages eaten, there are shady trips to secret prisons and conspiratorial meetings in an abandoned fairground.
Meanwhile, Wegener yearns after his ex-girlfriend, now embarking on a career in East Berlin’s key energy export and transit industry ministry, and has imaginary conversations with his former boss, a stubborn non-conformist who disappeared without a trace a few years ago. The plot twists and turns beautifully, with more deaths occurring and plenty of tensions arising between the East and West German detectives. Wegener is betrayed on both the professional and the personal level and the novel ends with a personal defeat for him. We do find out who the mysterious victim is and who killed him, but the whys and wherefores are much more important.
The detective novel – amazingly done in the manner of a modern-day Raymond Chandler – would stand alone just fine, but Simon Urban has combined it with an ingeniously imagined modern-day East Germany. He obviously had great fun coming up with ideas about what might have been – from brand names for electronic devices more advanced than those in the West to oil-powered cars and blockbuster movies titles. And there are laugh-out-loud moments in which we come across genuine people in unusual situations – for instance a senile Margot Honecker singing along to Wolf Biermann records or the politician Sarah Wagenknecht as an action-movie heroine.
In one brilliantly written scene, Wegener stumbles around the labyrinthine underground ‘Molotov’ bar, looking for his workmates but growing increasingly confused and emotional. The place is a den of iniquity that serves rhubarb organic lemonade – the flavour that’s always sold out at the shops – with a shot of vodka, and scallops and chestnut puree and bacon and chutney and the best brand of East German sparkling wine, Rotkäppchen Superb, and offers darkrooms and boudoirs and bathtubs and willing waitresses, all in the name of a corrupt socialism on its last legs. As he wanders the dingy corridors catching sight of opulent scenes, he remembers the last time he was there – and the Russian waitress Magdalena with whom he was caught in flagrante in his cramped Wartburg car afterwards. The entire remembered episode is told in incredibly sexy, breathless long sentences, only for Wegener to wake up from his melancholy reverie and spot his West German colleague apparently flirting with Magdalena. Of course he instantly imagines the two of them stretched out in the other detective’s roomy Mercedes, but can’t find his way into the room they are in and ends up spewed out of the bar and onto the hard pavement.
The whole novel is beautifully written in impeccable and imaginative language. The protagonist Wegener is an impressively painted character, an aging cynic on the surface who is actually powered by love and idealism. But what makes the book so very special is the exuberantly portrayed vision of East Berlin under a collapsing socialist system – pockets of luxury for visitors and functionaries, surrounded by grime and decay and decorated with laughable political slogans. Urban raises questions about German history and about the integrity of our political systems, combining them with a real page-turner of a plot.
The only tricky thing about Plan D is the humour of spotting modern-day celebrities in odd what-might-have-been situations. Obviously it would be difficult to recapture those moments of recognition in translation – perhaps a glossary might be the solution? But actually, Urban doesn’t assume that his readers know a lot about the GDR itself so the book is very accessible.
I eavesdropped on conversations about the novel as long ago as last summer – this is the kind of book people get excited about, and rightly so. Unsurprisingly, it's nominated for the Hotlist indie book prize, which you too can vote on until 15 August. Urban’s mentor is Juli Zeh, already a success with her literary crime fiction in English translation (see my review of Dark Matter/In Free Fall). And I was lucky enough to translate a sample for the publishers Schöffling Verlag, an absolute pleasure. Publishers: please give me a chance to really get my teeth into the novel after that first tempting taste – you know you want to…
Note: this is an adapted version of a report for New Books in German.