The Girl in Berlin

Summer, 1951. Two suspected spies, Burgess and Maclean, have disappeared, and the nation is obsessed with their whereabouts.
Speculation is at fever pitch when Colin Harris, a member of the Communist Party who has been in Germany for several years, turns up to see his old friends Dinah and Alan Wentworth. He has news: he has fallen in love with a girl in East Berlin, and is coming home—with her—for good. Meanwhile, Jack McGovern, who sometimes feels like the only decent man in Special Branch, has a rendezvous with a real spy. Miles Kingdom thinks there’s a mole at MI5, and he wants McGovern’s help.
Serpent’s Tail synopsis

I went to Madrid a few weeks back for work. That city gets COLD! London was actually a nice improvement. I’d like to go back to Madrid for some non work reason some time soon (maybe when it’s a little bit warmer) but both of the last times I’ve been there I did get a bit of a fuzzy feeling as I was on the street where I first found my wedding dress. But anyway, we were on the train up to Madrid, I was still reading Human Traces at the time and we had a discussion about books. In a way, maybe that was one of the triggers to writing this blog. One of the guys mentioned that he read 7 to 8 books a week and another mentioned that Madrid had some very good bookshops. I regretted that I hadn’t looked these up in advance as I ended up with a few free hours. We were near some of the most expensive shopping streets in Madrid and it seemed to be too much to hope that one of the ‘good bookshops’ was to be found there. I went up and down, criss crossed, followed back down and….nada! So I went into Corte Ingles to warm myself up and the ground floor was all books including a decent selection in ‘Ingles’ and that’s where I found this one.

I’m now sitting in a church in Estepona, listening to some beautiful music and finally being enveloped by the Christmas spirit. The choir have just finished Silent Night and I nearly cried. Now they are finishing with White Christmas and I’ve just got such a tingly happy feeling all over and I can’t wait to be home. I miss singing. I read an article a few weeks ago extolling the benefits of choral singing to one’s mental health and it’s all true. No matter what mood you’re in, if you sing together you can really lift yourself out of it. Not to forget the buzz of performing. I should really try to sing with this group, but there are any number of difficulties. This whole work/life split between Spain and Gibraltar for one. I joined the Gibraltar National Choir for a very short period but work took over and I never went back. I always find it strange when I think how much worse my work life balance is even though I should be having fun on the Costa del Sol.

So what has this all got to do with The Girl in Berlin? Very little in fact. I’m finding my way with this blogging but I suppose this is my blog and I can write whatever I like and I said from the beginning that I would not be writing reviews, rather I’d be writing about how the books I’m reading fit in around my life, or affect me….or something like that.
I finished reading this book in the church, absorbing the music but reading too. Most of this book has been read on the way too work. It’s too dark on the way back. Am I crazy to miss Irish Rail?

Then I read a big bulk of this on Tuesday night. I had to work so late that it made more sent to check in to a hotel in La Linea rather than take a taxi home. I was also in the middle of a 24 hour fast and thought it would be better to stay awake longer so I would not wake up too early looking for breakfast. I had the television on in the background and some bizarre programme was on where Spanish grannies were singing rock songs and the young folk were dancing away.

The long period of virtually uninterrupted reading meant I could give this book the attention it deserved.
Well I’m not going to call it a classic by any means, but I do think that my husband underestimated it when he dismissed it as a girl’s book quite early on. There are quite a few strands, lots of different characters and not everything really gets resolved or tied up at the end, but I suppose number of strands added some more mystery. It’s a bit obvious to say ‘all is not what it seems’ but you don’t really know which characters are the good guys, the bad guys or simply in between. There are some opinions I could share with somebody who had read the book, but I don’t really want to give anything away.

One thing that stood out for me while reading it is how few books I’ve read that are set in Berlin during this period – post war, post partition of the city into zones, but before the wall was built. If anything I was reminded more of The Third Man, set in divided Vienna, rather than anything set in Berlin. Some of the characters McGovern meets also reminded me of the slimy characters Holly Martins meets when he is trying to find out what happened to Harry Lime. On a side note, if you go to Vienna you really should try to catch a showing in the Burgkino; it’s a bit surreal watching the film in the cinema featured in the film itself. God, next time I’m in Vienna I should do the Third Man tour.

I can’t claim to know Berlin as well as I know Vienna. I wanted to visit Berlin this year as my brother was working there, but the time was never right and now he is home (where I’ll be tomorrow!). I visited Berlin for New Year’s 6 years ago. I was sick of never having any exciting plans when people asked, so I just decided to go. It was fantastic! Of course while there I did the necessary tours. It is so weird and fascinating to walk around a city that you know so well from history books.

Some of my random observations: ‘sherry was a girl’s drink’. I was at the Tio Pepe bodega in Jerez a few weeks ago and I don’t think anybody there would have been saying that!

I liked this one:
‘Idealists are good people. Haven’t you discovered that yet? They’re always working for the betterment of mankind. Trouble is, mankind just wants to go to the dogs in as pleasant a way as possible’.
The discussion of the ‘Spätheimkehrer’ the German prisoners of war who still had not returned at that stage (1951). Is it just me, or is it only in the last 10/15 years that it seems to have been ok to have films/novels that mention the war without demonising all Germans? I remember seeing the film ‘The Miracle of Bern’, which dealt with the difficulties of a family where the father had just returned after 11 years away. Of course the power of soccer triumphs!

Also, seriously, how did the Ukrainians manage to slip into this book as well?

There was something I was going to mention, in reference to a sickening story that is in the news at the moment and how I thought of that while I was reading the later stages of the book, but I don’t really want to spoil it, as this was not something you would guess from reading the outline or the earlier stages.

All in all, maybe I’m naïve and I know that the world is far from a perfect place these days, but when you read a novel like this, you really do not want to be transported back to that time.

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