Wednesday, November 10, 2010

London Match by Len Deighton

The last part of the trilogy starting with "Berlin Game" and continuing with "Mexico Set", this book is in some sense an anti-climax. The spy story brings out a whole host of emotions that are so well told and thats what I like most about Len Deighton.

The main character Bernard Samson (the book is written with him in the first person) grew up in divided Berlin soon after WWII with his father being a colonel in the British army. Some of the incidents about the English boy growing up in post-war Germany are incredibly touching. At the present time, Samson is near 50 years old and with British intelligence posted in London and specializes in German issues and their connectivity with Soviet Russia. He is in Berlin for an assignment and meets a German police officer over a case. The police officer remembers that Samson was with him in the same German school where there was a "crazy English colonel" who used to teach them football but couldn't kick the ball straight himself. The policeman is amused at the memory. A while later he apologizes to Samson as he remembers that the English colonel was Samson's father who pretended to teach football just to be with the German children who were growing up in a gloomy period. Bernard's father could have sent him to a good school with the children of other army officers which was his entitlement but he wanted his son to grow up with the German children instead. Here was an idealist who sacrificed his own son's upbringing because he sympathized with the sorry state of Germany's children.

Then again Bernard's memories of his childhood in Berlin with the German children seem to be deeply imprinted in what he does presently. His childhood friend Werner Volkmann is a counterpart in the West German intelligence. They remember their schooldays when an anti-Semitic teacher who was a Nazi sympathizer in the post war days, attacked Samson for being an English boy and Volkmann for being a Jew. They remember the dangerous games they used to play in the rubbles left by the bombers. Volkmann was orphaned at a young age and his aunt Lisl took care of him. Samson grew up being close to Lisl due to which she demands his visit whenever he comes to Berlin.

Deighton has created Samson's childhood and background in sync with the character he wishes Samson to portray. Samson appears as an aging field agent who is now assigned to a desk and seems to have little prospect of growth in the intelligence organization. He is shown as having little regard for the political undercurrents in the department and has disdain for his own boss who avoids work and decisions. Its as if growing up in the gloom of post-war Germany has given Samson little regard for the sophistication of the petty politics of English intelligence.

When I compare such a thriller with the works of Saul Bellow (The Victim) or even Joseph Heller (Something Happened) in peaceful times, it would be interesting to read an ordinary world thriller with all the emotions of a normal "guy on the street".

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