Defectors. 1961 - a community of Western double agents, exposed and living in exile in Moscow. Notorious back home, avoided in Moscow. As one of them says, Moscow is the kind of place where you keep top yourself. So they meet up every night in hotel bars, discussing old times and trying to trap one another into making damaging statements. The spectre of Stalin hangs over everything; nobody quite sure whether Khrushchev’s new freedoms are real or not.
The exception is Frank Weeks. A former CIA agent, he has found a new role as a senior KGB officer, moving with apparent ease and confidence in Soviet Society. He speaks with confidence about the rules that the KGB must follow - hidden rules, unfair rules, but rules that he knows and navigates.
Frank has written a book about his life before and after his defection some 12 years earlier. Both the KGB and CIA seem willing to let the book loose into the wild, but Frank has asked his brother Simon, a publisher in the States, to come to Moscow to edit the text. This provides Simon and Frank with an opportunity to renew family ties while Frank’s KGB batman Boris providers a curious mixture of concierge and surveillance services. And needless to say, there is a Cold War plot of intrigue and betrayal that is well done.
The real strength of Defectors, though, is the portrayal both of the limbo faced by the western defectors, and by the privileged life of the KGB within the “bubble” they have created for themselves. They have access to luxurious restaurants, theatres, dachas, travel, the finest rooms in the finest hotels, cars, trains, hairdressers... They live with an acceptance that they are watched; they know and befriend the watchers. They accept that they may have to report on friends and colleagues and sometimes this will not end well, but they convince themselves that this is a necessary thing that would have happened anyway. And they also have to accept a rigid pecking order and clearly scaled privileges that come with increased status.
The secondary strength is the gradual ratcheting up of the suspense. What starts out as a very gentle - and literal - walk in the park becomes more and more tense until we reach a truly heart stopping and frenetic end. All the time, trying to guess who is on which side. That’s the thing with double agents - you can never tell which side they are on, and perhaps they themselves never really know. At least one of the characters - Gareth Jones, a gay British dandy - just seems to enjoy betrayal for its own sake.
Defectors is a bit of an anachronism, being a Cold War thriller nearly thirty years after the lifting of the Iron Curtain. But in focusing on the Western defectors, it does something new; it breathes life into an already over-populated and rapidly dating genre in a way that would make Le Carre envious.
This isn't really a history book but all the categories mean Ihave to pigeon-hole the book to write about it (I won't rant, don't worry ). Stasiland is more of an investigation into life for "ordinary" people in GDR under communism and particularly focuses on the part played by the Stasi (secret police) both from the perpetrators' and victims' points of view.
Funder writes very well and tries to balance her investigation by covering both sides of the story and by her own commentary (which can be a bit much sometimes). She also draws parrallels with the explicit restrictions of communism and identical implicit restrictions of capitalism; such as freedom to travel, but not if you have no money. I really enjoyed the book and am fascinated by the subject matter.
However, there is a problem in that Funder gives the impression that every life was irrevocably tainted by the Stasi. There is no place in this book for the everyday life of millions of East Germans who lived under communism and who presumably have emerged unscathed. I just don't buy that everything about communism was bad and evil and that it brought absolutely no benefits or even humdrum-ness to its subjects.
This book was published in 1973 and then went out of print for awhile. A new publisher re-issued it in 2009. That can be the only explanation for how I managed to never read this book or this author before. My mother stumbled upon it and kept saying that I would love it, so as soon as I could, I downloaded it and read it. She was right and if you like these types of books, I would highly recommend it. I am looking forward to reading his other books.
The book concerns a group of spies and their friends, including a Sudanese prince, based in Geneva in the late 1950s (I think) and their car trip into the Sudan by way of Czechoslovakia. The book is presented as a series of intelligence reports, memos, transcriptions of wire taps, and diaries and they all concern one of the men on the car trip, Tadeusz Miernik. And that's all I'm going to say without a spoiler because you need to read the book without any preconceived ideas.
I would like someone else to read this as soon as possible so that we could discuss, behind the spoiler wall, whether my conclusions have merit or not.
Berlin, 1964. In the days leading up to Adolf Hitler's 75th birthday celebrations, a body with its foot cut off is fished out of a lake. The case is assigned to Xavier March, a senior investigator in the Kripo police force, and his bumbling partner Max Jaeger.
This is not, as you might have guessed already, the Berlin of 50 years ago as you might remember it, for in Fatherland, which Harris debuted with in 1992, the Nazis emerged victorious from the Second World War. The Greater German Reich now extends from Spain to Russia, with the Soviet Union a fraction of its true size. The Germans are locked in a Cold War with the United States but, in a major diplomatic coup, the incumbent US President Joesph Kennedy (JFK's father) is about to visit Berlin.
The case proves to be politically sensitive. The body is that of Josef Buhler, who proves to have links to several other recent deaths of senior Nazis. Consequently, the Gestapo become interested and a turf war between they and the Kripo ensues. March, not a good Party man, is distrusted even by his 10-year old son and Hitler Youth member Pili.
Initially, Buhler seems to have been involved in fraud with the other dead men, siphoning money into a Swiss bank account - the Swiss have retained their neutrality in this world - and March is, with some reluctance by his bosses, granted permission to travel to Zurich to investigate, alongside American investigative journalist Charlotte "Charlie" Maguire. As both investigate, the fraud appears to be a cover for something much darker which I won't tell you about here or I will spoil the novel's climax.
Harris has meticulously realized his alternate world, but manages to keep the story moving swiftly along without becoming bogged down in describing it. This is a Germany obsessed with paranoia and rank where you are nobody without a uniform and justice is meted out brutally and arbitrarily, not least to March himself. It has, of course, been racially purified as the Nazis would have wished. March discovers the photo of a Jewish family who had previously owned his apartment but all he knows of them and their fellow Jews is that they have been "shipped East".
All in all, this is a highly efficient and readable thriller, although the concept behind it is hardly a novel one - sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick's excellent The Man in the High Castle covered similar ground almost 50 years ago, as, more recently, has CJ Sansom's Dominion.