Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Literary Reference : Funeral In Berlin

I went with her down the long cream corridor to a room at the extreme western wing of the building. The decor too was like County Hall. She tapped gently on a large door and without waiting for a reply motioned me through. It was dark inside the room with just enough light filtering through the window from the courtyard to see where the desk was. From behind the desk there was a sudden red glow like an infra-red flash-bulb. As my eyes grew accustomed to the dark I saw that the far side of the room was filled with a silvery sheen.

"Dorf," said the voice of Stok. It boomed almost like an amplifier. There was a click from his desk; the yellow tungsten light came on.

Stok was sitting behind his desk almost obscured by a dense cloud of cigar smoke. There was Scandinavian-style East German furniture in the room. On the table behind me there was a Hohner simple button-key accordion, piles of newspapers, and a chessboard with some of the pieces fallen over. There was a folding bed near the wall with two army blankets on it and high leather boots placed together at the head. Near the door was a tiny sink and a cupboard that might have held clothes.

"My dear Dorf," said Stok. "Have I caused you great inconvenience?"

He emerged from the cigar smoke in an ankle-length black leather overcoat.

"Not unless you count being scared half to death," I said.

"Ha ha ha," said Stok, then he exhaled another great billow of cigar smoke like a 4.6.2 pulling out of King's Cross.

"I wanted to contact you," he spoke with the cigar held between tight lips, "without Vulkan."

"Another time," I said, "write."

There was another tap at the door. Stok moved across the room like a wounded crow. The grey-haired one brought two lemon teas.

"There is no milk today I am afraid," said Stok; he drew the overcoat around him.

"And so Russian tea was invented," I said.

Stok laughed again in a perfunctory sort of way. I drank the scalding hot tea. It made me feel better, like digging your finger nails into your palm does.

"What is it?" I said.

Stok waited while the grey-haired one closed the door behind her. Then he said, "Let's stop quarrelling, shall we?"

"You mean personally?" I said. "Or are you speaking on behalf of the Soviet Union?"

"I mean it," said Stok. "We can do far better for ourselves if we co-operate than if we obstruct each other." Stok paused and smiled with studied charm.

"This scientist Semitsa is not important to the Soviet Union. We have other younger men with newer and better ideas. Your people on the other hand will think you marvellous if you can deliver him to London." Stok shrugged his shoulders at the idiocy of the world of politics.

"Caveat emptor?" I said.

"Not half," said Stok in a skilful piece of idiom. "Buyer watch out." Stok rolled the cigar across his mouth and said, "Buyer watch out," a couple of times. I just drank the lemon tea and said nothing. Stok ambled across to the chessboard on the side-table, his leather coat creaking like a windjammer.

"Are you a chess player, English?" he said.

"I prefer games where there's a better chance to cheat," I said.

"I agree with you," said Stok. "The preoccupation with rules doesn't sit well upon the creative mind."

"Like communism?" I said.

Stok picked up a knight. "But the pattern of chess is the pattern of your capitalist world. The world of bishops and castles, and kings and knights."

"Don't look at me," I said. "I'm just a pawn. I'm here in the front rank." Stok grinned and looked down at the board.

"I'm a good player," he said. "Your friend Vulkan is one of the few men in Berlin who can consistently beat me."

"That's because he is part of the pattern of our capitalist world."

"The pattern," said Stok, "has been revised. The knight is the most important piece on the board. Queens have been made...impotent. Can you say impotent of a queen?"

"On this side of the wall you can say what you like," I said.

Stok nodded. "The knights - the generals - run your western world. General Walker of the 24th Infantry Division lectured all his troops that the President of the U.S.A. was a communist."

"You don't agree?" I asked.

"You are a fool," boomed Stok in his Boris Godunov voice.

"I am trying to tell you that these people..." He waved the knight in my face. "... look after themselves."

"And you are jealous?" I asked seriously.

"Perhaps I am," said Stok. "Perhaps that's it." He put the knight back and he pulled the skirt of his overcoat together.

"So you are going to sell me Semitsa as a little bit of private enterprise of your own?" I said. "If you'll forgive the workings of my bourgeois mind."

"You live only once," said Stok.

"I can make once do," I said.

Stok heaped four spoonfuls of coarse sugar into his tea. He stirred it as though he was putting an extra rod into an atomic pile. "All I want is to live the rest of my life in peace and quiet - I do not need a lot of money, just enough to buy a little tobacco and the simple peasant food that I was brought up on. I am a colonel and my conditions are excellent but I am a realist; this cannot last. Younger men in our security service look at my job with envy." He looked at me and I nodded gently. "With envy," he repeated.

"You are in a key job," I said.

"But the trouble with such jobs is that many others want them too. Some of my staff here are men with fine college diplomas, their minds are quick as mine once was; and they have the energy to work through the day and through the night too as once I had the energy to do." He shrugged. "This is why I decided to come to live the rest of my life in your world."

He got up and opened one of the big wooden shutters. From the courtyard there was the beat of a heavy diesel engine and the sound of boots climbing over a tailboard. Stok thrust his hands deep in his overcoat pockets and flapped his wings.

I said, "What about your wife and your family, will you be able to persuade them?"

Stok continued to look down into the courtyard. "My wife died in a German air raid in 1941, my only son hasn't written to me for three and a half years. What would you do in my position, Mr Dorf? What would you do?"

I let the sound of the lorry rumble away down Keibelstrasse.

I said, "I'd stop telling lies to old liars for a start, Stok. Do you really think I came here without dusting off your file? My newest assistant is trained better than you seem to think I am. I know everything about you from the cubic capacity of your Westinghouse refrigerator to the size your mistress takes in diaphragms."

Stok picked up his tea and began to batter the lemon segment with the bowl of his spoon. He said, "You've trained well."

"Train hard, fight easy," I said.

"You quote Marshal Suvarov." He walked across to the chessboard and stared at it. "In Russia we have a proverb, 'Better a clever lie than the foolish truth'." He waved his teaspoon at me.

"There was nothing clever about that clumsy piece of wife-murder."

"You're right," said Stok cheerfully. "You shall be my friend, English. We must trust each other." He put his tea down on the desk top.

"I'll never need an enemy," I said.

Stok smiled. It was like arguing with a speak-your-weight machine.

"Truthfully, English," he said, "I do not want to defect to the West but the offer of Semitsa is a genuine one." He sucked the spoon.

"For money?" I asked.

"Yes," said Stok. He tapped the fleshy palm of his left hand with the bowl of the spoon.

"Money here." He closed his hand like a vault.


I thought about 'King' Vulkan when I got back to the Fruhling. I was surprised that he was one of the best chess players in Berlin but he was full of surprises. I thought about my code name - Kadaver - and about Kadavergehorsam, which is the sort of discipline which makes a corpse jump up and salute. I poured a Teacher's and stared down at the screaming shining lights. I had begun to get the feel of the town; both sides of the wall had wide well-lit streets separated by inky lakes of darkness. Perhaps this was the only city in the world where you were safer in the dark.


He turned his back to me and began to toy with the junk on the bench, setting up some monstrous chess game. He tapped the rusty sparking plugs and squeezed valve springs in the palm of his hand. At the side of the bench was a thick polished oval of wood. There were twelve different sizes of drill stuck into it like matches in a peg board. Johnnie amused himself throwing the springs over the shiny drills. "Schmidt's of Solingen," it said on a scroll around the wooden base. "Best drills in the world."


Already it was dusk. The back-gardens all along the block were a chessboard of lighted
windows. The light inside the houses was very yellow in the blue evening of a London winter.

Len Deighton, Funeral in Berlin, Triad, 1978. p.29-31, p.35, p.166, p.183-4. (Original date of publication 1964.)

[Thanks again to Campion - and to Richard who did a lot of work on this]

[A Literary Reference index]

1 comment:

Tom Chivers said...

Barley Blair in le Carré's The Russia House is a chess player. The chess references are substantially less entertaining than Deighton's. le Carré often gives male characters a hobby to add a bit of colour; for some reason Barley gets two, chess and saxophone.