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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.