Reading guide for The Good German by Joseph Kanon

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The Good German

by Joseph Kanon

The Good German
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2001, 482 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2002, 482 pages

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. 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.
     
  2. 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.
     
  3. 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.
     
  4. 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?
     
  5. 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?
     
  6. 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.
     
  7. 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.
     
  8. 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.
     
  9. 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.
     
  10. "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 War II.

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.

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