Brandenburg, by Henry Porter

Uncovering the secrets of the Stasi - and spy fiction

Henry Porter has already played this genre three times with very considerable success. His last novel, Empire State, was a masterclass in multiple identity, but also skilfully written. Brandenburg has the same quality. It doesn't pester you with its research, nor offer you indigestible chunks of political history. Instead it provides something to bite on, and plenty of space to chew it. Set in the GDR in the months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Brandenburg also gives readers a stronger sense than before that Porter is particularly interested in his subject. Its focus is narrower, its gaze more penetrating.

The subject is the Stasi, the East German security service for which the main character, the art historian Rudi Rosenharte, has worked. His twin brother, a film-maker, has been banged up by the Stasi, and Rosenharte knows he can only get him released by playing ball. He is sent to Trieste to rendezvous with an old flame whom he knows to be dead. In no time, Rosenharte finds himself working for the British, Americans and Russians as well: all may or may not be setting him up.

In sketching the GDR's paranoid last rites, Porter is at his best. He quietly shows us the Stasi's complete self-denial in the face of popular uprising, and there is some nice comedy as characters grapple with still-clunky information technology.

Rosenharte is not entirely lovable: he is a heavy drinker and womaniser, worsted by most of the women. Although there are some sentimental passages, these aren't over-played (nor is there mindless violence). Porter enjoys himself enough to carry the reader with him. On the way, he continues to breathe new life into spy fiction.

Bill Greenwell's poetry collection 'Impossible Objects' will be published by Cinnamon Press in the spring

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