Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
- What do we
learn about Jake Geismar in the opening pages of The Good German?
What are his personal and professional reasons for returning to Berlin, now
that the war in Europe has ended? And what does he hope to find after his
big discovery at the Potsdam Conference? Also, explain how Jake's personal
history-as a somewhat heroic yet exiled American, a cynical but honest
journalist, a former citizen of Berlin, and so forth-influences the novel's
tone, atmosphere, narrative focus, and plot.
- Explain the meaning of the novel's title, giving special attention
to the ironic connotations of the word "good." How-and where,
specifically-does this novel address the difficult issue of morality? Cite
several passages from the book that highlight Kanon's thematic engagement
with questions of good and evil.
- Revisit the scene in Chapter 9 where Jake takes Lena to the
cinema. After the feature, they see a newsreel. What is it about this
newsreel that prompts Jake to whisper "It didn't happen that way" to Lena?
Where else in the novel do we see representatives of the press tinkering
with-or else blatantly reworking-the stories they are reporting? As a group,
explore The Good German's ongoing suggestion that history is
ultimately the product of media spin. Does this suggestion echo the old
dictum that history is written by the winners? Explain why or why not.
- The guilt of the Holocaust, the bureaucratic and moral
perplexities of denazification, the shame of losing the war, the geographic
and spiritual wasteland of Berlin itself-the Berliners in Kanon's novel are
depraved souls with serious problems that are personal and political,
individual and social. Identify these characters and specify the problems
each of them is facing. Also, discuss how each character confronts or denies
these problems. More broadly, what links can you establish between the
historical realities and the emotional truths depicted in The Good German?
- Who is Renate? How does Jake know her? Why has she been put on
trial by the Russians? And what is the outcome of this trial? How does
Renate's story-her particular background and fate-typify the novel's key
theme of survival?
- In Chapter 12, Jake and Lena visit Frau Hinkel, the fortune
teller. What does she tell them about their past(s) and future(s)? What does
she get right, what does she misread, and how do Jake and Lena receive her
pronouncements? Also, discuss the presence (or absence) of luck as a theme
in this narrative-as well as that of destiny.
- Early in Chapter 17, when Sikorsky and Jake briefly discuss the
imminent surrender of Japan and the coming of the war's end, Sikorsky asks,
"Does it feel over to you?" What does he mean by this? And later, in Chapter
18, Jake spots a newspaper item entitled, "WWIII BEGINS? WHO FIRED FIRST?"
Discuss this and other events in this novel-both historical and
imaginary-that might also be seen as preludes to the Cold War.
- Late in the novel, in Chapter 20, Jake confers with one of his
closest investigative allies, Bernie Teitel, a former DA who works in the
Army's denazification department. As they discuss the horrific enormity of
the Holocaust, Bernie says, "There isn't any punishment, you know. How do
you punish this?" Jake, as a friend and as a journalist, counters with:
"Then why bother?" How does Bernie respond to him? As a group, try to
elaborate on Bernie's answer and discuss your own responses to this issue.
- In terms of its literary genre, The Good German is a
thriller, a novel of intrigue meant to engage its readers by way of a plot
full of questions, clues, riddles, leads, red herrings, and so forth.
Identify the many separate and related mysteries that Jake confronts over
the course of this narrative. Which, if any, go unsolved-and why? Were there
any particular questions raised in the pages of this novel that weren't
answered or addressed to your satisfaction (as a reader)? If so, explain.
- "What Carol Reed's film, 'The Third Man,' did for Vienna
immediately after World War II," one reviewer (Bill Ott, writing in
Booklist) has laudably noted, "Kanon's thriller does for Berlin during the
same period." Compare and contrast The Good German with any other
novels or movies you can think of that take place in Europe just after World
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Picador.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.