Harvill Secker £14.99. Order for £13.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Valley of Unknowing, By Philip Sington

 

Philip Sington's novel has a lot going for it: the fashionably grim setting of 1980s East Germany, with its thrillerish ambience of paranoia and Stasi informers; a love story that crosses geo-political borders; and an eye-catching plot that hangs on a novelist passing off the work of a dead rival as his own.

Bruno Krug is a "People's Champion of Art and Culture" who for years has been living off the reputation of his debut, The Orphans of Neustadt. When his editor asks him to read a manuscript by a young film-maker, he has plenty of reasons to dislike it. First, it's the real, honest – and therefore dangerous – follow-up to Orphans that he has never had the guts, or the talent, to write. Its author, Wolfgang Richter, seems rather close to Theresa, the Austrian viola-player, studying in the East, who Bruno has his eye on.

When Richter dies in mysterious circumstances, and his own relationship with Theresa blossoms, things seem to be going Bruno's way – until Theresa spots the manuscript in his apartment and assumes it's his. Unbalanced by her misplaced adoration, he hatches a plan for her to smuggle the book to the West and publish it there.

Sington doesn't stint on the local-historical colour (or lack of it) of life under Actually Existing Socialism. There's the city of Dresden itself, with its streets "like rows of rotten teeth". Ice cream comes in one flavour, "a lurid green pistachio that tasted like deodorant".

What is a real drag, though, is that the text comes to us as written by Bruno during his post-Communist existence in Ireland. Now Bruno, as the book makes clear, is not the great writer he once was. And that's in German. This is in English: a cumbersome, overegged English that seems to be pushing against the impetus of the plot, and the buoyancy of love. "The penis, I have discovered, presents particular difficulties of nomenclature to creators of English literature"; "I woke often, impressions of unhappy dreams effervescing in my mind"; later "the approach of every car sent a pulse of effervescent terror up my spine." Is this bad writing Bruno's, or Sington's? If the former – a gambit on the part of Sington – then it's an act of self-sabotage the book barely survives.

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