BOOK REVIEW / Green whiter than white: 'The Life and Death of Petra Kelly' - Sara Parkin: Pandora, 15.99

WHEN news came through of the suspicious deaths of Green activist Petra Kelly and her partner Gert Bastian, a colleague of mine commented: 'Don't you think it's funny?' Then, piqued at our bemused lack of response, declared: 'I think it's hilarious.' Sara Parkin mentions in her introduction the 'general assumption' that in some way Kelly 'had brought it on herself', whether expressed benignly - the angel of compassion who was too good for this world, the passionate campaigner destined to burn out - or, malevolently, as the sanctimonious do-gooder who got what was coming to her. The notion that the beautiful and good die young annoys the silvery- haired Parkin: 'Why should not old women be passionate?' she demands. At the same time she acknowledges that Kelly's considerable achievements are overshadowed by the manner of her exit. Parkin lives up to the title of her book by giving due weight both to the life and the death.

She begins with her disquiet at the joint memorial service, when equal tribute was paid to Bastian and Kelly as dauntless warriors for the environment, when it was becoming increasingly clear, to the special horror of the pacifist Greens, that Kelly had been murdered by her lover. It was not, it appears, a suicide pact (Parkin refers to 'forensic evidence that Petra was asleep when she died' - it would be interesting to know what exactly that is). The most convincing indication that Petra did not collude in her own death, apart from the eager, forward-thinking letters which poured out of her tiny flat in the last days, is that this incorrigible activist would have preceded her suicide with a flood of self-justifying faxes.

Parkin's tribute to a dead friend is low on psychological probing and meticulous on incident and fact. It's 'What Petra Did', until Petra was horribly 'Done Unto'. With an almost superstitious shudder, Parkin passes over the threshold of the house of horror and comes up with her own theory as to how this 'very sweet, elderly man' (as a Buddhist scholar described Bastian a couple of days before the killings; the Dalai Lama didn't spot anything seriously bent out of shape in Bastian's psyche either), blew the brains out of the woman he apparently adored. The Petra described here, apart from a few intriguing hints, has very little inner life; consequently, it remains a frustratingly opaque account. We learn about the speeches and the pamphleteering but not what really made her tick.

She liked flings with older men, perhaps because her father had deserted her. She left the Catholic Church but constructed a strange personal cult around her sister Grace, who died aged 10 in 1970 after coping heroically with a cancer that ate out her right eye. Later in life she began to suffer from the psychological disorder angst, which turned her, as the photographs testify, from a golden-haired gamine to a gaunt, hollow-eyed wraith, and led to her increasing dependence on Bastian, an enigmatic ex-general, like Kelly an MP for Die Grunen and an anti-nuclear activist. Parkin's hints at his dodginess - possibly a Nazi past and links with the Stasi - are left suggestively shadowy.

The account of Kelly's childhood and her college career is one of the most upbeat and enjoyable parts of the book, although Kelly was plagued then and throughout her life by acute renal pains which culminated in an operation to remove part of her kidney. The account of Green activism gets rather technical, and the amazing thing in these apolitical times is how much like ancient history it all seems - all those demos and petitions, and even, heaven help us, the collection of sloganed T-shirts which now forms part of the Petra Kelly Archive. This is a solid, worthy tribute which clings obstinately to the light, even if the dark demons of jealousy, murder and bad faith haven't been entirely exorcised.

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