BOOK REVIEW / Russian about

A PATRIOT IN BERLIN by Piers Paul Read Weidenfeld pounds 15.99

THIS new novel is said by the publisher to be "cast in the form of a post-Cold War thriller". Is this form of words meant to imply that some larger artistic purpose is pouring itself into the mould of a lesser genre? Or to keep the thriller buff from comparing it too closely to the real thing?

It's probably a bit of both. Read manipulates big ideas among his espionage trappings, and the elements of suspense begin more promisingly and are resolved more neatly than slack patches in the middle manage to sustain. Read's natural clarity of mind gets impatient to throw light into every murky cul-de-sac. He even makes Russian names and their confusing diminutives easy to follow.

He is more interested in the conflict of art and state in shifting political climates. Cold War smuggling of icons out of Russia to decorate the houses of the Western bourgeoisie has resulted in the nasty Berlin murders of art dealers with which this novel opens. A debate about 20th-century art grumbles on throughout. Soviet diehards argue that abstract art is doodling rubbish - "icons of nihilism" - while the West keeps an open mind until it sees the price tags.

The book is set in Moscow just after the 1992 coup against Gorbachev has failed, when KGB agents are fidgeting about job security, and Berlin, where a major exhibition of modern Russian art which was banned during the Soviet regime is being organised by a female American art expert.

The intrigue is carried not so much by characters as types. There is a shabby secret policeman of the New Russian Federation, Gerasimov, who plods on as shabbily as he did in the KGB. He pursues, by contrast, an ex-KGB "zealot" called Orlov who clings passionately to the old Soviet ideals and has devised his own international agenda involving multiple passports and cunning disguises (including black dye for his beard, which seems very Graham Greene).

In Berlin, former Stasi agents creep round the American exhibition organiser, Francesca McDermott, who jogs, washes properly and wishes she'd brought her own de-caffeinated coffee. She is assisted by a mysterious Moscow art expert called Serliov, who is engaged to round up the "dissident" modern art that is still in Russia, though even a nodding reader would recognise him as one of Orlov's manifestations.

Orlov is the patriot of the title, a "Disgusted of Lubyanka" figure who resents Gorbachev and Shevardnadze for having let the Wall come down at all. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect in-depth characterisation of someone who is already wearing a half dozen masks and speaking as many languages, but Francesca uses the single adjective "dashing" so repetitively about Orlov/Serliov that you begin to wonder if he is literally whizzing from room to room. Still, Francesca falls for this Russian so shockingly hard that she is abruptly transformed from distinguished no-nonsense art authority to smitten love-puppet. "Who wants art when you can have life?" she gushes. And later:

"No life awaits me back in Boston. You are now my life."

"I came back to explain."

"You don't have to."

"I love Russia."

"I know."

Alarmingly sentimental dialogue such as this sets in for a melodramatic finale to the affair, and the conclusion to this otherwise bracing novel.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas