(The Berlin Wall, 1961-1989 as it snakes through the divided city)
In EDGE OF ETERNITY, the third volume of Ken Follett’s 20th century trilogy, the author continues to amaze his readers with his lengthy fictional history of the last hundred years through the prism of five interconnected families that he developed in “FALL OF THE GIANTS, AND “WINTER OF THE WORLD.” The construct of the Russian, English, Welsh, German, and American families continues as the novel opens with Rebecca Hoffman, a Russian language teacher at the Friedrich Engels Polytechnic Secondary School being summoned to an East German police station to be questioned by the Stasi. Upon entering the Stasi office in East Berlin she learns that her husband is a spy and that their marriage was a sham resulting in the end of her marriage, and a Stasi officer husband who would pursue a revengeful course against Rebecca and her family for years to come. With the first strand of the novel laid out, Follett develops the character of George Jakes, a young black lawyer who has just graduated from Harvard Law School. Jakes agrees to take part in the Freedom Bus Rides then embarking for Alabama. The result is white backlash and violence against the Freedom Riders as southern law officials stand by. Jakes’ journey following his experience in Alabama leads him to a position in the Justice Department in Washington, working with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. By presenting these two historical threads Follett begins to unravel his narrative by juxtaposing the lack of freedom in the “communist world,” represented by East Berlin and the lack of freedom in the “democratic world” in the American south. A third thread leads the reader into the political machinations of the Kremlin through the characters of Dimka Dvorkin, an aide to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and his twin sister, Tanya, a reporter for the TASS news agency.
The evolution of these characters, in conjunction with numerous others will take the reader through the 1960s and culminates with the downing of the Berlin Wall with an epilogue featuring the inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States. During the journey, the reader will become engrossed in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights Movement, the Berlin Crisis, the Vietnam War; the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Soviet dissident movement, the rise of Solidarity, the Iran-Contra affair, and the development of rock music during the period. Throughout, Follett links characters from the first two volumes in his trilogy to create further continuity with the current volume. Based on the length of the narrative and the complexity of the different plot lines Follett must have engaged in a great deal of historical research and I would love to see the sources he consulted.
Follett’s representation of historical events is mostly accurate though there are a few missteps. He does a superb job discussing the 1961 Vienna Summit between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev as he agrees with the standard account that the Soviet Premier walked out of the summit firmly believing that he could push the young American president around. He follows this part of the narrative employing Dvorkin and other aides to powerful Kremlin figures in highlighting the debate concerning the exodus of people from East Berlin to the west and finally coming to the solution of building a wall to divide the city. The reader is then lead through an account of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Many of the well known details of the crisis are available to the reader but some of the debate within the Kremlin and Kennedy’s cabinet seem general and lacking credibility. For example, placing a young aide to Khrushchev to be in charge of riding heard on the conservative forces in the Soviet Defense Ministry as a main component of the narrative is hard to fathom even if we accept the artistic license of historical fiction. The evolution of Dimka Dvorkin to such a position of power is very difficult to accept. In addition, Follett’s chronology dealing with the crisis is somewhat confusing. The author is not clear about the Soviet downing of a U-2 plane, first alluding to the 1960 incident of Francis Gary Powers, and then finally mentioning the downing of a U-2 plane during the crisis. More importantly it takes Follett more than half the book to allude to the role that Communist China played in the geopolitical world. He forgoes any mention of the competition between Mao Zedong and Khrushchev for the hearts and minds of the third world. Further, Follett’s elevation of George Jakes to being a primary aide to Robert Kennedy so quickly is also hard to accept as is the author’s integration of JFK’s sexual peccadilloes into the narrative, but leaving out his role in the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Again, I accept that this is a work of fiction and there are certain needs that have to be met to draw the reader’s attention, but let’s at least stay the historical course.
Follett does a much better job detailing the Civil Rights Movement through his fictional characters. We witness an accurate portrayal of Martin Luther King and the portrayal captures other civil rights leaders and the political roadblocks that needed to be overcome very nicely. We see the waffling of the Kennedy administration over civil rights and the fear of how it will impact the 1964 presidential election. Follett seems to favor Lyndon Johnson as a civil rights president after Kennedy is assassinated. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how Follett weaves a “mini” history of rock music in the 1960s into the narrative by developing characters that go through the process of discovery, writing music, performing in the midst of the Cold War. Follett also does an exceptional job developing the dissident movement in the Soviet Union through the character of Vasili Yenkov, an Alexander Solzhenitsyn type character who is exiled to Siberia and has his writings smuggled out of the Soviet Union through East Germany. Once Follett’s narrative dealing with the Kennedys is complete the book seems to be on firmer ground and becomes a much better read. We have the Jane Fonda type character in Edie Williams, the Angela Davis type character in Verena Marquand, the G. Gordon Liddy type in Tim Tedder, and for baby boomers it is fun to try and pick out which characters are replicating actual historical figures.
As previously mentioned, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novel deals with rock music. Employing the characters of Walli Franck and David Williams, Follett provides the evolution of a rock band in the context of the Cold War. The character of Walli is especially important because it is intertwined with the situation in East Germany and a family that is haunted and harassed by a Stasi agent, Hans Hoffman, who is also Rachel’s husband. We witness Walli’s escape to West Berlin as did his sister Rachel and her boyfriend before him. Walli’s story is especially poignant. He will escape East Berlin but his pregnant girlfriend refuses to leave. It takes over twenty five years for Walli to finally be reunited with his daughter Alice. The juxtaposition of Walli’s drug addiction and music career to events in Germany and Eastern Europe is accomplished successfully, and enhances the storyline as the novel comes to a conclusion, with the uniting of the Franck family as the Berlin Wall comes down.
(June 26, 1963, John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” in West Berlin)
The conclusion of Follett’s “century trilogy,” accomplishes a great deal. It takes the reader through the most important events of the Cold War in Europe and the United States culminating in the end of communism as we knew it in 1989. For those who are historically curious about this period they will emerge very satisfied with the characters and the role they play in Follett’s historical novel. Events are fairly accurate considering this is a work of fiction and if one pays attention; the author provides his own analysis as the reader moves through the story. Follett’s own view is clear as Tim Tedder, the former CIA operative watches the opening of the Berlin Wall and provides a toast to the end of communism, “Everything we did was completely ineffective. Despite all our efforts Vietnam, Cuba, and Nicaragua became Communist countries. Look at other places where we tried to prevent Communism: Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Cambodia, Laos…None of them does us much credit. And now Eastern Europe is abandoning Communism with no help from us.” (1093)
(The Berlin Wall comes down, November 9, 1989)