Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Voices Under Berlin: A Novel of the Berlin Spy Tunnel by T.H.E. Hill

Originally posted Nov 16, 2008
Reviewed for Front Street Reviews

T.H.E. Hill is a veteran of Field Station Berlin and of Herzo Base. As such, he is perfectly attuned to the subject of his novel. Hill’s novel is set in the early days of the Cold War. The CIA and the U.S. military intelligence linguists are in fact involved in the planning and construction of the tunnel and also handling of processed data. From this point on, this review will refer only to the novel. The book is very entertaining, irreverent and humorous throughout. The story is told from both the Russian side via tapes and land-line calls and the U.S. side from the transcriptions by the ‘lingies” in the tunnel under Berlin. The characters are a mix of fun or stereotypical in order to bounce off each other like the straight man and the funny man. Through the tapes we come to know the characters you never get to “see”, but learn the personalities of, through the transcriptions.

There is a feeling of being a part of the cloistered community, especially once the wiretaps are in full operation. In a boring and inactive area, a lot of the action comes from the transcription of the tapes and calls. There is so much game-playing to alleviate the boredom that some characters suspect the head transcriber, Kevin, is playing jokes with the transcriptions and making things up. Some of the transcribers are unable todiscern the underlying information and make serious errors in judgment that Kevin just barely has time to correct before the reports go out. He has read the manuals, he knows the lingo, knows how to distinguish what is important and what is not. When he is questioned about where he finds certain words in the transcriptions, he can point out what was hidden that led him to know place or person, what clues to watch for.

Underlying the daily goings on is the content of some of the tapes talking about a spy who is dating a U.S. soldier, who the Russians suspect is involved in a U.S. operation in the area where the warehouse is (the warehouse is over the tunnel entrance). The concern rises as some tidbit of information is inadvertently dropped to the Russian spy, and the main characters in the tunnel each have a different idea of who the GI might be, but when they identify the spy, they will know. I do not want to include any spoilers, so I will step away from the mystery. Needless to say, the more I think about this book, the more I enjoy recalling it.

There is a “Guide to the Jargon” in the front of the book that’s very helpful. There is also a paragraph on “How the Russians Address Each Other”. A quick search by me on the internet for my own curiosity brought up several sites about the Berlin Tunnel, declassified in 2007.

I would definitely recommend this book to those who like Cold War humor, history, and entertaining reading.

Article “The Cold War Museum - the Berlin Tunnel by T.H.E. Hill

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