The Valley of Unknowing by Philip Sington

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The Valley of Unknowing by Philip Sington

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Love and betrayal in the last years of the GDR. An East German writer falls in love with a Western musician. Any future they might contrive together is complicated by the arrival of a mysterious manuscript and the sudden death of a mutual acquaintance.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 295 Date: April 2013
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780099535829

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In the mid-to-late eighties the German Democratic Republic looked like enduring. Bolstered by a system of Mitarbeiter (fellow workers is a much more amenable term than informers) the Stasi kept their populace in check. Western media was easy to censor in those days. Border controls were brutal. People were shot on a regular basis trying to cross the no-man's-land into West Berlin and along the other inner German borders.

For us in the West the GDR was summed up in the rain-streaked, black-and-white novels of Le Carré and the cold war spy movies which might have been shot in colour but felt like black-and-white. The GDR was a grey, muted, place. A controlled place.

Those of us who'd read Orwell's 1984 as young teenagers in school in the late seventies and said yes, Miss, but it couldn't really happen could it? didn't realise that to all intents and purposes it had happened, was happening.

Halfway through my A-levels, in 1980, I had the pleasure of three weeks as the houseguest of a West Berliner family. A day-trip across the wall with their teenage daughter took some organising. Even then, I didn't really understand.

Sington has greater insight. His wife grew up in the GDR. He has seen his father-in-law's Stasi file. His own mother worked in British intelligence. I think we can trust the essence of his story.

Bruno Krug is an author. A long time ago he wrote the German classic The Orphans of Neustadt – it was a love-story set in the socialist ruins of post-war East Germany, a roman full of passion and ideology. The ideology is all that remains in his later works - Factory Gate Fables - written to order on the part of the state. The passion has gone.

The author survives on the easy adoration of fans of his former self, and occasionally falls back on his trade as a plumber when he needs to barter for something from the lower echelons of this classless society.

Krug is something of a loner, something of a womaniser, exactly the kind of man that that juxtaposition implies.

Then he falls in love.

Theresa is Austrian. She is in East Germany on a student visa, studying music. She is a viola-player. A supporting act, not a soloist.

She is also very much younger than our author.

That doesn't worry Herr Krug. He doesn't see a future in it anyway. Not to begin with. A greater thorn in his side in the early days of their relationship his her apparent relationship with a young, mouthy, scriptwriter, Wolfgang Richter. Richter fancies himself as a culture-vulture and has repeatedly, publicly undermined Krug's famous work, and his lack of follow-up.

One day, Krug's friend and editor asks him to look at a manuscript he's been given. It is untitled and un-credited. It is exceptionally good. This wouldn't matter, except for the fact that it is clearly a follow-up or an homage to his own magnum opus. In essence, it is the book he knows he should have written himself.

Then the author is revealed… and is also, suddenly, inexplicably, dead.

This is a police state. Sudden, virulently infectious diseases are something of standing risk, if you happen to write subversive literature.

All of which leaves Krug with a manuscript, a half-started love-affair, and a world-view that has suddenly un-kiltered.

The Valley of Unknowing is the local name for the town on the Elbe in which the story is largely set. It's a self-mocking acknowledgement of being aware of existing in a state of being kept in the dark. Sington's portrait of the GDR is as subtle as the shades used in all of the official buildings. He talks of the ruins that seem to have been there since the end of the war, but also of the real spirit of entrepreneurship that has to exist in a society where official commerce is strictly controlled. There are subtle jibes at the officialdom who thought it could be made to last.

The book is written as Krug's last work, written in Ireland shortly before his death and handed to a journalist. Book-ends explain the construct, which would be unnecessary, but for the fact that it gives the fictional author a reason to be writing in English. The usefulness of this lies in the ability to construct translations that underline the absurdity of the official views of the time. One of the favourites is Actually Existing Socialism. The German was probably Realsozialismus. Translating it as Real Socialism doesn't quite get the point across.

This is one of those books that doesn't live up to its billing – but, which, if you'd missed the billing you could really enjoy.

Forget the monochrome cover shot of the lone figure staring at empty tram-lined streets. Forget the reviews that talk of this as a hard-nosed thriller. It isn't. It is a story of jealousy and betrayal behind the iron curtain, but it's mainly a domestic picture of ordinary lives caught up in ordinary officialdom. The GDR was a police state. It was a horrible brutal system. But for most people who lived under it, life went on, in what became a kind of normality. For me this is the strength of the work.

It isn't a thriller by any stretch of the imagination. Of course there are sinister men on street corners, and people get followed and there are detections and false passports and unexplained deaths. Files are redacted and stolen. There are dead letter drops and underground people-smugglers. There's even a short sojourn at the hospitality of the Stasi which defies all expectations you might have of such incarceration.

Somehow all of that is just background. It is authentic background, and it is what makes the story work, but somehow it neither drives nor stalls the plot. The plot is one man falling unexpectedly in love and being faced with a dilemma regarding his personal and professional options. That was what kept me turning the pages: what will Bruno do, to whom or what will he stay true, where does betrayal start? It's a very personal story.

It doesn’t have enough tension to be called a thriller. It does have enough of interest to keep you reading.

Worth a look for the historical portrait alone.

For more tails from life on the wrong side of the Iron curtain you might enjoy West of the Wall by Marcia Preston.

Buy The Valley of Unknowing by Philip Sington at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Valley of Unknowing by Philip Sington at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Valley of Unknowing by Philip Sington at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Valley of Unknowing by Philip Sington at Amazon.com.


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