Book review / Filed teeth, marlin spikes, ripping yarns

The Story of my Disappearance by Paul Watkins, Faber & Faber, pounds 14.99

Paul Watkins's sixth novel opens in characteristically violent circumstances. Two New England fisherfolk, Paul and his long-time girlfriend Suleika, are idling in a deserted harbour-front bar when a shaven-headed stranger walks in and orders a plate of oysters. Knife and fork have barely been crossed, however, before a second man plunges into the room and stabs the startled diner through the skull with a marlin spike. As the sirens wail, blood hits the floor in "a fast Morse Code of droplets", and Paul stares briefly into the murderer's cold grey eyes, he divines that some long-dead ghosts are back to haunt him.

The trail leads back to the East Germany of the mid-Eighties, where Paul Wedekind, a blameless engineering student, is invited to spy on the activities of a ramshackle chum named Ingo Budde by their college tutor (owlish Markus, who believes Ingo to be a drugs trafficker, and turns out to work for the secret services). With the pair dispatched to Afghanistan on national service, there are plenty of opportunities to monitor Ingo's progress as a prince of racketeers, and also his official employment as camp interrogator- cum-torturer. Finally, after a hillside ambush, Paul watches Ingo have his teeth filed off by a score-settling mujahadeen leader. He is returned to the army camp in an exchange of prisoners, assuming that his friend is dead.

Officially declared dead himself, and thus entitled to a new identity, Paul gets sent to the US. Here he settles down as engine-tuner to Suleika - a recently widowed Soviet agent who uses her trawler as a front to ferry in diamond smugglers delivered by submarine (sold in New York, the gems are a useful way of raising hard Western cash). A last storm-crossed mission, in which their human cargo goes overboard and the boat sinks, coincides with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Phoning their contact at Aeroflot, Paul receives the disquieting intelligence that they will have to make their own travel arrangements home. A low-key life together on the boats, subsidised by a suitcase of dollars left over from the final trip, is interrupted by Ingo's return.

Devotees of Paul Watkins's previous work will have recognised all the usual signature marks: deadpan brutalities; man versus nature; elemental travails (as in his second novel, Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn, Watkins excels himself in descriptions of storms at sea). If it all seems to get a little unreal towards the end - having identified his Afghan persecutors as a couple of CIA men, Ingo has tracked them down to an International Trade Commission conference in nearby Providence - then this is only to remind the reader that an original suspension of disbelief took place 150 pages earlier. One accepts the high-drama finale because it conforms to the wider logic of Valhalla morals, desperate remedies and - more or less - just deserts.

Hawk-eyed readers will doubtless be amused by the anglicisation of "Paul Wedekind" into "Paul Watkins" (whose own childhood was in fact spent at the Dragon School, Oxford, and Eton) and the attribution of the author photo to "Suleika". There are dangers in this unremitting diet of ominous, stripped-down prose, and Watkins' last novel, Archangel, steered uncomfortably close to self-parody. But leaving aside a quibble or two about portentous metaphors - that blood dripping like Morse Code, for instance - The Story of My Disappearance is terrific stuff.

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