Funeral in Berlin, by Len Deighton

A cold-war novel, involving the attempts of the English secret service to get a Russian scientist, who wants to defect, out of Berlin.

I really wanted to like this but just couldn't get into it. I struggled for about three weeks, getting through a few pages at a time, and finally gave up. Probably it didn't help that I was reading Personal Injuries at the same time: both were books I'd expected to whizz through - and while I did eventually finish PI, I concede defeat with this one.

Part of the problem was that the setting seems so distant: it's not that long ago since the fall of the Berlin wall, but the world described here feels completely outdated, and it took me an effort to feel involved with it. But the style of the book made it hard for me to follow too: there are quite a few characters, and it's not easy to keep track of who they are, what side they're on (and there are more than two sides) and whether they're double- or triple-crossing someone. But often seems like people in the book speak in a way that shows they know what's going on, even if the reader doesn't.

It feels very much of its genre: everyone in it is world-weary; you get the sense that whether or not the guy ends up defecting, nothing will change - people don't seem idealistic, just resigned to pursuing the grubby business of intelligence and counter-intelligence. There's a good quote at the start of the book from Khrushchev, talking to the director of the CIA: "I believe we get the same reports - and probably from the same people...We should buy our intelligence data together and save money. We'd have to pay the people only once" which I think sums up the overall feeling of the book.

There were also numerous footnotes and several appendices in the book, providing background information on, e.g. the genealogy of the Czech secret service etc.. I don't know whether these are fictitious or not. One which struck me - not sure if it's true, was where someone says

"June the sixth, 1944, was D-Day; up till then you British had lost more people in wartime traffic accidents than you had lost in battle".
The footnote for this reads
"In the first four years of war, British casualties (including POWs and missing) were 387,966. The number killed and injured in traffic accidents was 588,742"
Well, I didn't know that. A quick google search comes up with a single web page containing the same statistic, although it's pretty similarly worded, so perhaps they got it from this book too..

Perhaps the problem is mine for not concentrating enough on the book: maybe if I'd read it more intensively it would have gripped me. I wouldn't rule out other Len Deighton books, but perhaps not this type.

Gave up: 25-Aug-2009

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