Simon Urban (www.simonurban.de/)
Translated by Katy Derbyshire
Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk/about-us/harvill-secker/)
October, 2011. Much of the gas used by Western Europe comes from Russia, via a pipeline network that runs through the middle of the German Democratic Republic. Weeks before the leaders of the two Germanys are due to come together to discuss the future of the pipeline – cheaper gas for the West, more money for East Germany – an elderly man is found hanged from the pipeline, the arrangement of the body suggesting that the Stasi are up to their old tricks again. Martin Wegener, Hauptmann of the People’s Police, is assigned to the case, a case he expects to hand over the the Stasi themselves before the first day is through. But the case has a bearing on the future of the talks; the West insist on assigning one of their own men and he, in turn, insists that Wegener remain on board. As they dig, the dead man reveals one secret after another. The architect of the so-called Plan D, his death has massive implications for the future of the state. All Wegener has to do is stay alive – and stay out of the Stasi’s secret prisons – until he and Brendel can solve the case.
Simon Urban presents us with a vision of a modern-day Europe still divided by the Berlin Wall. While we spend the entirety of the novel tailing Hauptmann Wegener in his investigation, Urban does provide us with glimpses of what is happening beyond the Wall, mainly through the eyes of Wegener’s Western counterpart, Richard Brendel. It’s a fascinating vision, and provides as much entertainment – and, strangely, as much of the reason for wanting to continue reading – as the murder around which the plot revolves. Urban’s world is wonderfully constructed, and we see the fruits of an extra 25 years of Socialist rule on the people of the GDR, a country that has evolved, technologically, as much as its Western peers, albeit in a slightly different way. Here are a swathe of brand names we don’t know, technologies that are unheard of, yet are plausible at the same time: the Minsk mobile phones, which have models specifically for State Security operatives; the Phobos plastic cars, fuelled by rapeseed oil and smelling like chip pans as a result; the Navodobro, in-car guidance systems that run off a proprietary technology that doesn’t require access to the West’s Global Positioning Satellite network. This is a world where Socialist values still very much hold sway and "low cost" is always the name of the game. Foul-smelling air and greasy car windscreens are a small price to pay for these ideals.
At the centre of the story stands Wegener himself. A People’s Policeman, Wegener has a troubled past that has seen him crossing swords with the Stasi, the dreaded State Security, an organisation that is still very much alive, though much smaller than before, and with a much reduced remit compared to the organisation of terror that existed prior to 1989 (a period referred to in the book as the Revitalisation, during which the Wall was opened for a brief period). At least, that’s the official version. Wegener’s friend and mentor, Josef Früchtl, disappeared under suspicious circumstances, and Wegener found himself in trouble when he asked too many questions. Wegener has the added complication of his ex-girlfriend, Karolina Enders, a woman with whom he is still very much in love and who may have a direct connection to the case at hand, since she works for the Ministry for Energy Export. Paranoid and often deluded – much of the book finds us inside Wegener’s head, witnessing a seemingly endless dialogue with a version of Früchtl that lives on in his mind – Wegener has a sharp mind and a sharper tongue that makes him an intriguing and immensely engaging protagonist. The cast of supporting characters are equally as interesting, as is the history of this repressed country and the various organisations that Wegener encounters along the way.
Plan D is a surprising book – it’s not as heavy as the jacket material makes it seem. There are beautiful touches, and little glimpses of a dark and wonderful humour in the storytelling that transform police procedural-meets-political intrigue into something completely different, and altogether more pleasing. There are obvious comparisons to be made with the like of Robert Harris’ Fatherland and, while the era is completely different, and the points of divergence of the two alternate histories decades apart, Xavier March and Martin Wegener are most definitely two of a kind. It’s a wonderfully written, and obviously lovingly translated, novel that will have the reader, by turns, nailed to the edge of their seat and laughing at some minor incongruity or well-placed joke – often made at Wegener’s expense.
There’s no need for anyone to betray you, Martin, you do that yourself, you insane, horny, dumb idiot of a stallion, you’re the one whose professional interest is on truth, you’re the one chasing after it like a tribe of cannibals after Schalck-Golodkowski, you know the truth finds it own path, it can’t be stopped, it creeps into the light of day at some point, through the tiniest fracture, for the truth, my friend, is a brutal, five-second sauerkraut fart in a teeny windowless cellar room, one second before the masterclass of the Académie du Sommelier comes in.
Simon Urban has created a believable world, a country living with ideals that are almost twenty-five years past their sell-by date, yet surviving nonetheless through sheer luck and the power of the secret police that lurk around every corner. It’s a realistic vision of what Berlin might have been like had the Wall still split the city in two. The inhabitants of this gloomy, greasy city with its pervasive smell of frying oil run the gamut from those happy with their lot, to those – like Wegener himself – who would bolt to the West given half a chance. It’s a gripping read, at times funny, at others quite sad, leaving the reader fearing for the future, not to mention the sanity, of the novel’s protagonist. Despite a distinctly noir feel, Plan D heralds a fresh new look at the European crime novel and plants Simon Urban firmly on the must-read list. This is my surprise hit of the year so far, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.