The former bureau chief of U.S. News & World Report in Berlin, where he lived for five years, John Marks has written for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. He holds an M.F.A. from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa and is currently a domestic correspondent at U.S. News & World Report. He lives in New York City.
Q: Almost a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, why write a book about it? A: First, quite simply, the event blew me away. The sight of hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets and overthrowing an unjust dictatorship filled me with awe then, as I watched it on television from a news bureau in Washington DC, and continues to move me. It was like watching a birth. In Berlin, the revolution happened without bloodshed. Unlike the Russian Revolution, and most other political convulsions of the Twentieth Century, the Fall of the Wall did not bring death and destruction in its wake, but it did bring about the end of four decades of repression. I consider myself to be a child of 1989, politically, socially, culturally. And that brings me to the second reason for writing this novel. The fall of the Wall marks the beginning of our era. In a very real sense, we cannot comprehend the world as it now exists, politically, economically or culturally, without grasping this rupture, which, virtually over night, put an end to what was once called the Cold War. Seldom does history offer such dramatic turning points. Until 1989, most people lived under the shadow of a global conflict between two nuclear superpowers that might break out at any moment and destroy the world. At the same time, oddly enough, people had certain assurances. The world made sense. Under the watchful eyes of the Soviet Union and the United States, conflicts around the globe could be contained. Because both sides had weapons of mass destruction, neither side could win; therefore, neither side had an interest in using them. The demons of nationalism and religious fanatiscism might exist, but were held in check by these larger forces, which gave a higher ideological meaning and shape to all strife. In retrospect, the Cold War made the world a very simple place to understand and a relatively easy one to manage. Its ending has left us nearly incoherent, struggling for definition, and the transition from one state to the other has never ceased to fascinate me. Third, and last, the collapse of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe in 1989 showed me history not as a collection of decisions made by powerful states, of diplomatic cables or economic statistics, not as a set of facts looking for a theoretical context, but as a living force—history, if you will, as an Act of God. I’m not saying that I interpret these events in a religious fashion or that I see anything divine in them at all. What I’m saying is that, as they occurred, they appeared to come out of the sky. At the time, I was a clerk in the Washington bureau of the New York Times, and I still remember the faces of veteran correspondents as they came to the copy desk to watch the television; in response to the images on the set, Berliners dancing on the Wall, mass demonstrations in Prague, fighting in the streets of Bucharest, their jaws would drop. These men and women who had covered the Kremlin in the heyday of the Cold War, apartheid in South Africa and the Vietnam War were dumbstruck. We all were. History had taken us by surprise. Q: Why write a novel? Why not a journalistic account? A: I wrote a novel because I did not believe that a reporting of the events could do justice to their magnitude or to their drama. I wanted to try and imagine what it would be like to have invested everything emotionally, spiritually and psychologically in one view of the world and then see that world turned upside down. And I could not really do that to my satisfaction in a non-fiction work. Having said that, the novel is steeped in my experiences as a journalist in Central and Eastern Europe between 1990 and 1995. I have been to most of the places described in the book, interviewed dozens of people who experienced the transformation firsthand–spies, dissidents, student revolutionaries; I have retraced the events of the various revolutions and tried to stay true to the broader historical sweep. Also, as a work of fiction, The Wall has to do with my own personal and intellectual transformation during the last years of the Cold War. When I went to Marburg as a student in the early 1980’s, I had never been out of the American South. Suddenly, I was thrust into the great tragedies and schisms of Central and Eastern Europe. Marburg was then one of the “red” universities of West Germany. It had a high percentage of hard-line Leftists in its student body, and they were outspoken in their hatred for the United States and its policies. This was an era of heightened Cold War tension, of demonstrations against Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada and Pershing II missiles on West German soil. I traveled to the Soviet Union and East Germany, where I experienced both the repressiveness and strangeness of Communist governments, but also met, for the first time, perfectly reasonable people who professed the Marxist creed. That year changed my life, changed the way that I looked at my country and my upbringing and lots of things that I had previously held dear. When the Wall fell, this period of my life itself had to come under examination, and novel deals with that, to an extent. Q: Why a spy novel? A: The spy thriller was the Cold War genre par excellence. It could not have existed without the bizarre rules of that period. In a war without conflict, the spy became the only soldier, and as such, came to represent the duplicity, cynicism and corruption of the great game being played between the superpowers. He existed in the shadows of governments, gathering arcane information to be used in gambits that would never see the light of day. He was supposed to be on one side, either a Capitalist or Communist agent, but in the end, he looked the same, no matter who his masters. When I was in high school, I lapped up spy fiction, particularly Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsyth novels. Later on, I devoured John Le Carre, and there was always James Bond. After the end of the Cold War, it seemed to me that there was room for at least one final Cold war thriller, one that took place as the game was concluding, at the very moment when the rules ceased to make sense. It would be a Cold War thriller, truly, to end all Cold War thrillers, a way to revisit the stereotypes and cliches of the genre a last time and, in a sense, to overturn them like the Wall.
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