When Katharine opens the door of her London house one summer morning, she finds Axel, her old lover from Moscow, standing on the doorstep. Music at the Garden House goes on from there. I liked the idea of having a ghost from the past show up and seeing where it led. Only later did I work out who the woman was, and who the ghost was, and what had happened to them in the past, and what happened to them next.
Reviewing the book, the London Sunday Times called Music at the Garden House “a tense and intriguing novel that raises provocative questions about betrayal: personal, national and political.”
I set the novel in July 1990 – a time of transition. The Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Cold War was more or less over, but Germany had not yet reunified, and the Soviet Union had not yet collapsed. Lots of loose ends to work into a thriller; plenty of room for betrayal. Axel tells Katharine he’s being hunted by the KGB, and asks her to help him leave England. Initially reticent – and sceptical too – Katharine smuggles him across the Channel and shelters him in her house in France.
My husband and I used to own a house in the Perche region of Normandy, and it was here that I set the tale. The house was in the middle of nowhere, down a tiny lane, on the edge of the woods, several kilometres from the nearest village. There were one or two other houses nearby, but basically you could do what you wanted out there and no one would know. We used to lead a quiet life on our weekend visits, but I gave my characters a tense three days that culminated with the incursion of the KGB and a dead body on the floor.
Well, that’s what Axel tells Katharine. That’s what gets her out of the house and into the car, on the autoroute driving east. But there are other reasons too. Axel vanished from her life without explanation ten years earlier, and she has never got over it:
“I would never again let any man rip apart my life to such an extent. Unless, of course, the man was Axel himself. His disappearance had left me with a sense of things unfinished, accounts unsettled, a journey of discovery uncompleted.”
And then Axel takes over the narrative, and it’s clear that he’s been lying to her from the start. Not just in London, but in Moscow too. But Katharine doesn’t learn the truth until they get to Prague, and in the meantime she has driven Axel across half of Europe, and they have fallen in love all over again.
So what happens next? Can she forgive him? Can he forgive himself? As the miles roll by, Axel comes to doubt himself and what he has done:
“For the time being, we were safe. I would be able to spend the night with Katya, fending off questions about the past, telling her lies about the future, using her, deceiving her, betraying her with every word I spoke. In Moscow, I had abandoned her. Because of me, she had nearly died. And now I had come marching heedlessly back into her life, with no thought for what I might find, nor what I might leave behind me.”
Music at the Garden House is structured as an East European road trip. The original title of the book was Driving to Koenigsberg. To make sure I had the geography straight, I covered most of the route myself on two different journeys. In 1992, I dragged my family on a camping holiday to explore the ex-communist East. Because of my job at Radio Liberty, the area had been off-limits until two years earlier. We went to East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. We stayed in some rather dubious campsites, and swam in some frankly filthy lakes. We took the Autobahn to Kaiserslautern with car chases in mind, and drove the slow road through the mountains from Dresden to Prague.
We did not drive to Koenigsberg. You can’t: it doesn’t exist. The old Prussian capital where Frederick the Great was crowned was awarded to the Soviet Union in 1945, renamed Kaliningrad in 1946, and is now a Baltic enclave belonging to Russia. In the book, Koenigsberg is a fantasy land where Axel and Katya imagine themselves leading a different life, away from Katya’s husband and Axel’s career and the divisive political loyalties of the Cold War. But the print publishers made me change the title. They said no one knew where Koenigsberg was, especially in Australia where my previous books had sold well. I came up with the new title after a night of feverish brain-racking. I suppose I can see their point.
The other journey was in some ways more enlightening. It had taken place a year earlier. I rented a car in Bavaria and took my fourteen-year-old daughter to explore the DDR. Braving bad roads and inadequate road signs, we went to Erfurt and Weimar and Eisenach. We found a witch’s hut in the Thuringian Forest where Axel and Katya spend a night. We also encountered Ludmila, a disillusioned East German Party member, who was later to play a pivotal role in Axel and Katharine’s story by helping them escape Stasi surveillance.
In real life, Ludmila lived in Erfurt. For the needs of the story I moved her to Weimar, but otherwise, I hardly changed a thing. The real Ludmila was retired, sixtyish, a widow who rented a room to tourists to make ends meet, very chatty. She said it was interesting for her to have people to talk to, and added that it was interesting for me to visit East Germany and talk to people living there. And then she launched into a requiem for the recently vanished DDR (Germany had reunited the previous October). Communism had always been her ideal. Could I imagine how she felt now that her ideal had been taken away? She complained that the West Germans were moving in and taking things over and pushing up prices, and she accused the market economy of failing to look after those who needed protection, such as old people, children and the handicapped.
Ludmila was half Russian. She was born in Leningrad, still had family in the Soviet Union, and made periodic trips there. This dovetailed nicely with my story and I used it all. On her last trip to Moscow in 1989, she had seen glasnost in action and been much struck by the sight of people singing satirical songs and selling caricatures of Brezhnev on the Arbat. Arriving home in August 1989, at a time when East Germans were pouring through Hungary into Austria, and holing up in West German embassies in Prague and Warsaw, she went to a Party meeting where an official stood up to say: “We don’t understand what Gorbachev is trying to achieve with his perestroika. We don’t need that here. Our reforms are completed.” Ludmila felt that the Party had let her down.
My daughter was lying on her bed reading her book, and Ludmila and I were sitting round the coffee table eating cherries straight from Ludmila’s garden plot, getting on beautifully. So I asked her what she thought of the Stasi. (If you come out with a direct question on a delicate topic, people will sometimes take you for a stupid foreigner and give you an answer.) It worked. Ludmila suddenly got very intense. She pulled her knees up under her chin and said that natürlich, she hadn’t worked for the Stasi herself. Natürlich, I said. However, she went on, the Stasi were being treated unfairly. They were being used as a scapegoat. They had only been doing their job. They hadn’t done anything the West German secret services hadn’t done. There was a witch hunt underway. It wasn’t right.
Next morning, my daughter and I went to Buchenwald, which was disturbing in more than one way. Not just the lampshades made of human skin, but the odd slant of the museum. The prisoners at Buchenwald had liberated the camp themselves, and the curators seemed more excited by their brave anti-Fascist deeds than saddened by the loss of life. Anti-Fascism? Really? Forty-five years later? But what shook me most was the inscription Jedem Das Seine (To Each His Own) emblazoned across the main gate.
We drove on to Weimar. The West German colonists had set up a branch of Benetton on the main square. After what we had seen that morning, it felt very civilized. We each bought a capitalist T-shirt. We visited the Goethehaus and the Schillerhaus and wandered through the park to the River Ilm. On the far bank was Goethe’s Gartenhaus. As we arrived, an outdoor concert began. I don’t remember what they were playing. In the book, I said it was Bach. Axel and Katharine stumble on a concert of music they once listened to in Moscow, and hearing it again ten years later makes them understand why they are driving across Europe together.
Music at the Garden House was originally conceived as the second part of a trilogy exploring the moral compromises forced on the individual in a police state. (The first was The Angels of Russia, set in Russia in 1986, and the third was Café Maracanda, set in post-Soviet Central Asia in 1997.) To solve Axel’s crise de conscience, I used the real-life confessions of a dissident colonel in the KGB called Oleg Kalugin. Kalugin acknowledged the wrongs he had done, and expressed his regrets, on the front page of Moscow News, the cult newspaper of the perestroika period.
To balance the sombre admission of sins at the end of the communist era, I tried to show the other side of the coin. In 1999, Axel’s father dies. He is a general in the Red Army. He was born in a peasant’s hut in 1923, and he owes everything to the Party: his ideals, his education, his career. He believed in the advent of socialism but, at the end of the century, he is dying disillusioned. I wanted to take a look at Soviet communism from another perspective. The Bolshevik experiment was a great adventure that won the faith of millions of people. When it failed, it destroyed their hopes of a certain kind of life. One of the inspirations for the character was Ludmila.