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Art and lies

Piers Paul Read has resurrected the espionage novel. By Tom Adair: A Patriot in Berlin by Piers Paul Read Weidenfeld, pounds 15.99

Tom Adair
Friday 29 September 1995 23:02 BST

Smeared by the fall-out from Cold War melt-down, Piers Paul Read has resurrected the genre we thought abandoned to some Lubyanka of the mind. A Patriot in Berlin, his latest foray into the murk of modern European history, is espionage revisited.

Central casting provides Andrei Orlov, an ex-KGB man, masquerading as Serotkin, an expert in Russian 20th-century "decadent" art. It ushers in Dr Francesca McDermott, an American art historian, to join him (unaware of his double identity and carefully muddied motives) in assembling in Berlin, in the summer of 1993, a major retrospective show of Russian experimental art.

While he's off the books of the KGB, Orlov is much on the minds of Yeltsin's new secret service. A rogue outsider, gone to ground, his predeliction for the old guard renders him dangerously subversive. They set Gerasimov, hard bitten and shy as a mastiff, on his tail. Has Orlov masterminded the gruesome double murder in Berlin which nudges the narrative into gear? And what's his connection with Stefan Diederich, the Minister for Culture who has dreamed up the retrospective, then carefully twinned him with Dr McDermott? Diederich, married to careworn Sophie, one of Francesca's old Berlin buddies, a DDR dissident, is the novel's Machiavelli.

There's a touch of predictability about the ensuing narrative, which casts Francesca increasingly as the novel's pivotal force while, just as surely, Andrei Orlov melts without meaning into the text, becoming a cypher touting quotes from the great Russian poets as he moves towards the suitably melodramatic finale.

We are apt to wonder both at, and about, a novel which is at once a superbly crafted, seamlessly written entertainment, but also a catechism of questions, some of which sharpen our focus on its theme of love caught up in betrayal, while others seem spurious. Can a work of art be "the mother of our emotions"? Are "all great men above morality"? Do we care? Is morality fixed, a free-standing entity?

Meanwhile, sharp-edged moral dilemmas unfold, and Sophie is faced with a choice between saving Stefan or telling the truth. And Andrei, sensing the breath of Gerasimov on his neck, may run to ground, or, against the odds, follow the lure of the fatally attractive Francesca.

It would be churlish to give the game away. Suffice it to say the denouement removes the last element of choice - the ultimate basis of morality - from the grasp of its twin protagonists, a blemish to haunt the provenance of an otherwise intelligent, slipstreamed foray towards the midnight chimes of intrigue.

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