Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary is a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions, set in the Cold War. It is a tale of friendship and betrayal, of love and of “Romeo and Juliet’s choice.”
The novel displays some very interesting literary features that are not commonly found in twenty-first-century novels, but which do reflect the author’s interest in more traditional literary forms. A third-person omniscient narrator—so rarely found these days—is used to hold the reader at a distance, increasing the sense of alienation that is key to understanding the text. This technique and the subject matter both immediately call to mind Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and M*A*S*H* by Richard Hooker. All three novels are about characters who do not fit in with military uniformity.
In M*A*S*H*, Hawkeye and Duke count on their skills a surgeons to excuse their unmilitary behavior. In Voices Under Berlin, Kevin’s linguistic skills serve the same purpose. Hawkeye, Duke and Yossarian all want to get out of the war, but Kevin wants to stay in the Cold War in Berlin.
To accentuate the sense of detachment from the military milieu in which the Kevin finds himself, the author did not give his hero either a last name or a rank. This literary trick also underscores the hero’s lack of status among the other characters in the novel. A lack of surname and rank is normally only applied to literary personages who are children or servants (slaves). Even in Heller’s and Hooker’s classics, the heroes had both a first name and a rank.
While Heller used the foreign quality of the name Yossarian to convey the hero’s otherness in Catch-22, the autor uses the combination of a prosaic first name (Kevin) and the sobriquet of that ubiquitous generic American of World War II (Kilroy) to make his hero a representative of those to whom the novel is dedicated: the nameless thousands who “fought the secret Cold War for one tour and then went home.” It is the juxtaposition of the senses of alienation and of belonging that creates the dynamic tension in the character’s personality and gives the character’s role a broader meaning.
The writing style used in the novel demonstrates another unusual approach to literature that is reminiscent of Henrik Ibsen’s “play for voices,” Peer Gynt, undoubtedly one of the author’s favorites. This play is usually considered very hard to stage due to its accent on the aural, rather than on the visual. The novel is likewise almost totally lacking the kind of visual clues that readers are accustomed to seeing on the printed page. Instead—as the novel’s title (Voices Under Berlin) suggests—it is a novel of voices, intended as a tale to be heard rather than as a text to be read. Half the novel is made up of unnarrated transcripts of conversations between the Russians whose telephone lines have been tapped. The other half of the novel carries the same “aural” signature as the transcripts, reflecting the ear-centric worldview of the person who had to transcribe the Russians’ conversations, Kevin.
The novel is, therefore, recommended to Monterey Marys of all ilks, both scribes and analysts, ground pounders and zoomies, in other words, to those to whom it is dedicated.