Spy and secret service novels abound. There are the adventures of James Bond, written by Ian Fleming, or John Le Carré’s story of the spy who came in from the cold, stories that almost everyone knows. The strangest encounters happen in exotic places around the world or in the big metropolises, people are threatened, manipulated, killed or rescued from the greatest danger. Rarely do such threatening and fascinating events take place in Munich, just as seldom does the Federal Intelligence Service – based in Pullach near the city until the 2000s – play a role in espionage literature, apart from Herbert Rosendorfer’s “Messingherz”, which was written in 1979 has appeared.
A new BND novel, written by a long-time employee under the pseudonym Carl Maria Ehrlicher, is set precisely in this era of brown-orange cars and bathroom tiles, in the era of sweet drinks and excessive binge-drinking. “The Gate of Tears” deals with the coup in Iran in 1979, it’s about agents, murders and arms trafficking. But in the end, all of this is just a backdrop for what the author wants to get rid of: his quarrel with the eternal small-small of the hierarchy and an authority that has been described as fairly unfascinating.
This dual approach is reflected in the title: The Gate of Tears is the strait between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, but also an allusion to the narrator’s personal debacle. This makes getting started a bit difficult at first. First of all, it’s about who has to drive the ugly brown car of the service or what nonsensical instructions superiors give. You have already read or experienced that. The first-person narrator ponders the matter of the last girlfriend and how he ended up with this employer in the first place.
Only gradually do the usual ingredients of espionage stories find their way into the novel. The protagonist is tasked with gathering information about possible rearmament projects in the Middle East, and only because someone on duty misunderstood someone else. In fact, the protagonist finds an informant in London, a journalist who fled his country in the East. The helper is being monitored and hunted by his compatriots – and he is also well aware of the danger he is putting himself in as a carrier of exclusive news from the Arabian Peninsula.
Ultimately, the informer is one of the strongest characters in the novel. He comes across as authentic, one suffers – this man is caught between his resistance to an authoritarian regime and his private obligations towards his own family. To support his family, he puts them in danger.
Like so many of his literary and perhaps also real colleagues, the BND employee makes one mistake after the other
On the other hand, the BND employee who extensively criticizes his superiors’ mistakes seems extremely unprofessional. What is described succinctly: “I decided to make myself smart. I forgot about it again over the Christmas holidays.” That hurts. Like so many of his literary and perhaps real colleagues, he makes one mistake after another. He operates with numerous half-truths, which may be due to the job, but the half-truths quickly become too many. In the end he puts his young girlfriend in danger, and everything is headed towards the inevitable catastrophe – which becomes clear very quickly when reading, perhaps too quickly too clearly.
In the end, what remains is the image of a service shaped by personal sensitivities, where hierarchy takes precedence over content, where executives rarely fulfill their duties, and where true loyalty is found primarily with the caretaker. The service blues thrives in this milieu and only a good portion of 1970s Munich seems to help. The drinking at the Oktoberfest, the dalliance with a woman from Munich, the summer evenings at the Flaucher. You close the book with the feeling that the author has written a lot from his soul. And that being an agent is only for James Bond.
Carl Maria Ehrlicher: “The Gate of Tears”, Salon Literatur Verlag, Munich 2022