BOOK REVIEW / Tawdry ending for a Green and epic life: 'The Life and Death of Petra Kelly' - Sara Parkin: Pandora, 15.99

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The Independent Online
SARA PARKIN once politely calls the Dalai Lama a liar. En route to Oslo to collect the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, the Dalai Lama slips into East Berlin with the flamboyant West German activist MP, Petra Kelly. The intense, beautiful, deeply neurotic Kelly - who until her murder two years ago was the world's most famous Green politician - was then at a high point of her career. It was she who arranged the Dalai Lama's surreptitious passage through Checkpoint Charlie to a candlelit ceremony with dissidents on what turned out to be the very day the East German Communist government fell.

'In his subsequent autobiography,' writes Parkin, who until her resignation as party chairman two years ago was Britain's most famous Green politician, 'the Dalai Lama's advisers had obviously prevailed on him to rewrite this story as a brief moment with an 'old woman' on the west side of the Wall.' That Parkin rarely calls anyone else a liar is a defect of this cautious but compelling, well-researched biography. And that Petra Kelly, a tireless campaigner for Tibetan and other human rights, is already being omitted from certain annals is a sign that she may soon be forgotten. The once epic story about a charismatic advocate of non-violence has become a tawdry murder mystery.

On 19 October 1992 Kelly, 44, was found in her bed with a bullet through her head. The gun belonged to her lover, the supposedly gentle General Gert Bastian, who lay dead by the same gun in the hallway of their house. He too had been a Green MP; he too supposedly espoused non-violence. When the bodies were found the German police decided it was a double suicide, despite the fact that these two incessant letter writers had left no notes. When Kelly's family complained, the police more or less amended their conclusion to murder. The culprit, they said, was the general.

Bastian had just written a warm, very ordinary letter to his wife and was in the middle of another letter when he stopped mid-word. Did he hear an intruder? Did he sneeze (he had a cold), and perhaps have a stroke which so deranged him that he killed Kelly and then himself? Did the word he was typing - mussen, 'must' - bring something to mind which precipitated murder?

Or did someone else do it? Bastian had recently spoken out against the rise of neo- Nazism. Was the killer acting for a right-wing hit squad or for the remnants of the East German secret police, the Stasi?

Parkin's recital of the forensic evidence is not detailed enough to be convincing. There was, the police say, no interruption of the blood- splatter pattern to suggest an intruder. But that can only apply to Bastian's body. After an intruder murdered Kelly, the devoted Bastian, finding her dead, might have shot himself of his own accord. Or he might have been prevailed upon - perhaps with a threat to his wife or children or honour - to shoot himself. Reluctantly, Parkin accepts the police version and hypothesises that Bastian may have killed Kelly as part of a plan to keep his own Stasi files secret.

No one who ever met Petra Kelly easily forgot that gaunt, frail beauty, nor the force of the personality. Her talk was rapid fire, rat-a-tat fast. Although her message was of unilateral disarmament, she was a kind of first-strike interviewee, offering meaningful answers before a single question had been asked. Can it really be that this proponent of free love and the equality of women, who so dominated Bastian in life, was hurled like an ancient Norse wife on to her 'husband's' funeral pyre? An obscene notion. I hope it is not true.