Sunday 17 January 2010

The reissues (8) - Funeral in Berlin

A little later than expected, I've got round to considering the new edition of Funeral in Berlin, my personal favourite of the first four novels of Len Deighton. It is a novel in which the city of Berlin is as much a lead character as the unnamed agent who narrates the story.

The plot of the book should be familiar to most readers. The W.O.O.C.(P). agent - who subsequently became the Harry Palmer character in the film adaptation - is required to travel to a divided Berlin to arrange the defection of a Soviet scientist code-named Semitsa, using the cover of a funeral transfer from East to West. The handover is brokered by Johnny Vulkan, a rogueish member of the Berlin intelligence community and someone who shares a murky, black market past with the protagonist. Despite the unnamed agent's initial scepticism, the deal seems to have the support of Russian security-chief - the lugubrious Colonel Stok - and the high-ups in the Home Office. The fake documentation for Semitsa needs to be precisely specified in the name of Paul Louise Broum. The twist comes in the shape of beautiful but deadly Israeli intelligence agent named Samantha Steel, who is also interested in the content of this fake identity, but for wholly different reasons. Add into the mix agents of the Gehlen network of former Nazis charged with exfiltrating the 'body' into the West and the machinations of the KGB, and the denouement leaves the reader - and the unnamed agent - questioning just who is on the side of whom in the Cold War in Berlin.

The new introduction
This is one of the longer introductions Deighton wrote for the eight new editions relaunched in 2009 and is the most revealing, detailing as it does the relationships he developed with East Berliners which ensured that his storyline - and his portrayal of the city - was as authentic as it could be given the obvious restrictions. Deighton has met an East German film director Kurt Jung-Alsen at the National Theatre and formed a friendship with him (Jung-Alsen died in 1976 and was famous in the East for films such as The Vengeance of Private Pooley, at the showing of which Deighton first met the director). Deighton recounts how, acting as guide for Jung-Alsen during his stay in London, they were having coffee together when news of the building of the Berlin Wall appeared on the news. A stroke of luck for the director, one might have thought, but Deighton recounts that, while no loyal communist, Jung-Alsen returned because all his possessions and his family were in the East, and he had a successful career there.

The following year, the introduction continues, Deighton made a return visit to see Kurt Jung-Alsen in Berlin, who clearly had a priveleged life by DDR standards:

"Kurt more than returned any favour I had done for him in London. He introduced me to many people and made me feel at home. As I said to him, no once buy many times, that of all my friends he was the only one who enjoyed the bourgeois benefits of domestic servants and a valuable art collection. And this was communism? I made a few forays into West Berlin and came back with all manner of desirables for Kurt and his friends. A child's wheelchair, asparagus, and ladies fahion magazines such as Burda was one consignment. The wheelchair was a tight fit in my car and I was grilled about it but Burda magazine was the only thing confiscated that time; I suppose the border guards had fashion-conscious wives."

While in the East, Jung-Alsen made Deighton a production staff member on a film which the former was making about the Spanish Civil War. This necessitated Deighton spending large amounts of time in East German cities like Leipzig and Weimar. In the Elephant Hotel in the latter, Deighton ended up staying in the room favoured by Adolf Hitler on his visits to that city! Clearly what this time in the East gave Deighton as a writer was a golden opportunity to tap into local sources of colour and history, to understand the city and its inhabitants, to feel the impact of the Berliner Luft on the soul. This is all clearly evident in some of the descriptive passages in the novel.

"Berlin was soon a second home to me. I became obsessed by Berlin. I studied its history and collected old photographs of its streets, street life and architecture. I talked to many who had served and many who had suffered under the Third Reich. I still can wander through its streets and alleys and see the past, even when there is little evidence of the past remaining. I learned about its electricity, gas and sewerage systems, much of which could not be divided and had to be shared; a fact kept secret by both sides. The whimsical way in which the town was divided made it even more bizarre. It was a microcosm of a divided world."

Deighton's knowledge of Berlin - and more importantly, Berliners - is part of what makes this novel a success and his plot twists and rich dialogue mean that, 45 years since publication, it still has a real zip and zing about it. Great stuff.

The new design
This is in my opinion the coolest of Arnold Schwartzman's new cover designs. Again the smoking and chessboard motifs are present, emblematic of Cold War Europe. As Schwartzman writes:

"Deighton had likened a spy story to a game of chess, which led me to transpose the pieces on a chessboard with some of the relevant objects specified in each book. Since smoking was so much part of our culture during the Cold War era, I also set-about gathering smoking paraphernalia."

The Cinzano ash tray is referenced in the text, and Schwartzman recounts how in its familiar triangle he saw an analogy with the three Allied powers occupying Berlin, the three cigarettes on the cover point at each other like the loaded barrels of occupiers' guns. The British Woodbines and the American Camel Zippo lighter represent the West; the KGB lighter and identity pass - sourced in Ukraine by Schwartzman - represent the Eastern bloc. The pack of Gauloises cigarettes - featured on all four covers as a semiotic pointer to the protagonist - and red pawn are, crucially, placed on the eastern side of the wall on the map, pointing to the character's frequent trips across the wall. The back of the jacket shows a US Army Berlin District badge, a DDR 5 Mark coin, and cigarette cards referring to key plot developments throughout the novel.

This design, like all the others, represents visually the complexity of Deighton's story construction and also the authenticity which he brings to both the plot but also the details of the dialogue and the character development. That's why, forty-five years or so after publication - and with the Wall now a distant memory - the book still possesses the capacity to enthrall.

1 comment:

  1. "I learned about its electricity, gas and sewerage systems, much of which could not be divided and had to be shared; a fact kept secret by both sides."
    Classic Deighton. Just the kind of detail that a spy would learn about and use.