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
Jonathan Gibbs reviews books for The Independent and elsewhere. His novel Randall, about the contemporary art world and the fate of the YBAs, is published by Galley Beggar Press. He blogs on this aspect of his writing at tinycamels.wordpress.com
Wednesday 02 May 2012
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.
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days
Oscar voter speaks outfilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Forget 'The Dress': Here are five of the biggest news stories you might have missed
- 2 The black and blue dress: Makers considering a white and gold version
- 3 Prince Harry leaving the armed forced to pursue conservation projects in Africa
- 4 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
- 5 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
Seinfeld is laughing all the way to the bank: TV show generates $3.1bn in repeat fees since final episode
Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl: First look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Justin Kelly interview: On James Franco playing a gay man who renounces his homosexuality
Fearne Cotton quits Radio 1 after ten years for 'family and new adventures'
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
Half of Ukip voters say they are prejudiced against people of other races
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Aqsa Mahmood branded a 'disgrace' by her parents after claims she recruited three UK girls flying to Middle East