Valley of Unknowing: An evocative look at literary life behind the Iron Curtain

Valley of Unknowing
Philip Sington Harvill Secker, £8.99

Any successful literary thriller is a balancing act. The best work of the genre is intelligent without ever being pretentious, is carefully constructed without calling undue attention to its architecture, and, more than anything, skilfully counterpoints its setting and theme in exemplary fashion. Fulfilling all these criteria, Philip Sington’s latest novel is set amongst the labyrinthine mind-games and self-deceptions of the former East Germany in its twilight years. It is an engrossing, occasionally brilliant read for suspense fans, history buffs, and spurned literati alike.

Purporting to be the final work of a “People’s Champion of Art and Culture” named Bruno Krug, The Valley of Unknowing opens with its protagonist living off the reputation of his novel The Orphans of Neustadt. He has coasted by on “twenty years of mediocrity”, on regime-licking propaganda essays, and on the safety afforded by his role as a Stasi informer. He believes his reputation is secure until his publisher asks him to read the only manuscript of a novel by rising screenwriter Wolfgang Richter.

Krug is horrified to find Richter’s work is dazzling, a satire of his own late offerings married to a potent critique of the Communist political apparatus. It is a dangerous book, the type which the jealous Krug knows he ought to be writing himself. Worse still, Richter has become a rival in Krug’s pursuit of Theresa Aden, a music student from the West. Yet when the younger man dies in the kind of mysterious circumstances so beloved of Cold War Europe, Krug dares to think his troubles are at an end.

He successfully beds Theresa and allows her to assume he is the author of the remarkable manuscript. It is a vain lie which rolls into larger duplicities as he allows her to smuggle the book out of the country, even encouraging her to publish it under her own name. Such developments are perfectly paced by Sington, his plot beginning slowly but always gathering momentum until, like a runaway train, Krug’s escalating falsehoods threaten to derail his life.

Indeed, the character’s looming downfall is difficult for one to tear themselves away from. Krug is a wonderfully realised creation, a deceitful, womanising coward whom Sington nonetheless imbues with vulnerability and genuine pathos. He is, for his many flaws, “a romantic, but in a time and place where romantic ideals were very hard to sustain”.

The tragedy of his fall is underscored by Sington’s rich evocation of life behind the Iron Curtain. His East Germany feels real in every detail: “Moustachioed pursuers” foreshadow disappearances, constant deprivation is a fact of life, and Krug’s Dresden anchors the so-called Tal der Ahnungslosen, the Valley of the Clueless where West German, thus ostensibly more truthful, TV signals cannot reach.

It is clear upon reflection Sington’s intent is to poke fun at certain aspects of the thriller format from within. To his credit, he does so without ever compromising the riveting, hard-nosed nature of his own storyline.


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