We’re reading PLAN D by Simon Urban

5 Jul

Leigh Alexander gets under the skin of an alternate Germany


Harvill Secker, HC £14.99

Kate Derbyshire’s English translation of Plan D has just hit shelves, but German author Simon Urban published the original in 2011, the same year in which the novel’s set. In Plan D’s 2011, the Berlin wall never fell, and two Germanies adjoin one another in a climate of interminable anxiety.

It’s in the detail of that bleak, gray pall that the book excels, and its vision of an impoverished East Germany frozen in time for some sixty years. The author has an unpleasantly vivid gift for grotesque details, from the specific smells of unloved places to the sharp crease of a police officer’s too-tight trousers in an unflattering body zone. The book’s first line pragmatically describes its protagonist, Martin Wegener, preparing to relieve himself.

Wegener’s a detective dispatched to investigate an apparent homicide – a political figure hung after the Stasi fashion on the pipeline that carries precious oil via Russia from East to West Germany. The murder could jeopardize crucial relations between both sides of the wall.

Besides being a little more downtrodden and vulnerable than the traditional noir detective-hero, Wegener isn’t especially exciting or empathetic for a book widely described as a thriller. He’s haunted by a vanished mentor’s memory and the failure of his marriage to beautiful Karolina – the prose treats her a bit lewdly, and we don’t see much about what would have ever made weary Wegener appealing to such a supposed sexpot.

But the chilly languor of Plan D is probably a worthy trade for all those vividly-imagined details of a long-divided Germany, its sense memories layered with nostalgia for old national values. Urban’s impeccable alternate reality is especially provocative in light of renewed modern curiosity about socialism – a truly complex theoretical model that’s drawn here in prose you can often smell and taste – whether you’d like to or not.

Also on the blog: Leigh Alexander drifts out of her comfort zone in the company of James Smythe’s The Explorer.

And in “Three ways to play the future”, Leigh explores the future of on-line gaming. Read her now in Arc 1.1: The future always wins.

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