by Philip Sington
Hardcover (3 Dec 2012), 304 pages.
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
In the twilight years of Communist East Germany, Bruno Krug, author of a single world-famous novel written twenty years earlier, falls for Theresa Aden, a music student from the West. But Theresa has also caught the eye of a cocky young scriptwriter who delights in satirizing Krug's work.
Asked to appraise a mysterious manuscript, Bruno is disturbed to find that the author is none other than his rival. Disconcertingly, the book is good - very good. But there is hope for the older man: the unwelcome masterpiece is dangerously political. Krug decides that if his affair with Theresa is to prove more than a fling, he must employ a small deception. But in the Workers' and Peasants' State, knowing the deceiver from the deceived, the betrayer from the betrayed, isn't just difficult: it can be a matter of life and death.
This subtle, brilliantly plotted story will remind many readers of von Donnersmarck's Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others.
PART ONE 1
One November morning, while the schoolchildren outside were going through their gas mask drill, the telephone rang. It was my editor, Michael Schilling. I knew something was wrong right away.
'Are you coming in?' he said, referring to his dingy offices on the southern edge of the Altstadt.
There were certain times in the publishing cycle when coming in was something I did often. The trip from my decayed but roomy apartment in Blasewitz took no more than twenty minutes, and in summer especially I would combine it with a trip to the Hygiene Museum or a picnic in the Volkspark, with its ornamental lakes and decorous imperial woods. But this was not one of those times, because my last book had been three years ago and my next was intractably stalled. Something had happened, but Schilling wasn't going to tell me about it over the phone.
'I thought we could have a coffee somewhere,' he said. 'There's this new place off Wilsdrufferstrasse.'
The opening of a new café was, in the Workers' and Peasants' State, still something of an event.
'All right. When?'
'How about . . . now? If you're not doing anything.'
I had promised to make a remedial visit to Frau Helwig, an old spinster who lived across the road. She had what she quaintly referred to as a 'weeping toilet', which I took to be a routine ballcock problem, but I had not specified the hour when I would call.
I arranged to meet Schilling at eleven. Frau Helwig's plumbing would have to wait until the afternoon. From the sound of it, Schilling thought he was in some kind of trouble or I was, or we both were. Fleetingly I pictured intimations of official displeasure, perhaps some ideological shift in the wind. Schilling tended to worry about things like that. He was the worrying sort. Still, as I hurried down the road and squeezed myself aboard a tram, I found my stomach squirming in anticipation of bad news.
The publishing company operated from the fourth floor of a concrete office block overlooking Ferdinandsplatz, a windswept semicircle of asphalt and puddles bounded to the east by tramlines. The area, like many in the city, was one of perpetual reconstruction. Every second lot was piled high with earth, mixers and diggers and generators standing idly about, like children's toys in a sandpit. Occasionally a gang of workers carrying shovels and pickaxes would jump down from the back of a lorry and march off to one site or another only to disappear again for weeks or months, leaving behind no discernible evidence of their stay. Meanwhile the pale yellow trams, dirty and sparking, moaned back and forth, adding to the air a smell of burning and a din of grinding steel. I arrived fifteen minutes early, pressed the buzzer and began the slow climb towards the office (the lift hadn't worked in years). I was less than halfway up when I saw Michael Schilling peering down at me from the floor above.
'Stay where you are. I'm coming down.'
I watched him descend: a tall, bony man with a high forehead and grey hair that flowed over the back of his collar like a superannuated rock star, a look that complemented his long-standing attachment to an old MZ motorbike. The symmetry of Schilling's face made him almost handsome, but his teeth were crooked and years of squinting at typescript had obliged him to hide his blue eyes his most striking asset behind a pair of thick lenses. He had already put on his raincoat and was clutching beneath his arm a document wallet made of brown imitation leather.
Schilling and I enjoyed a relationship that is rare in capitalist countries between writers and editors. There the relationship's very existence depends upon cash flow, specifically the writer's ability to generate it, and may therefore be undone at any time by the unpredictable gyrations of market forces. Whereas under Actually Existing Socialism, where security of employment was an inalienable right, the cultural worker needed only to fulfil his cultural quota to be confident of maintaining both livelihood and status. True, there was still a readership to think about, one capable of dangerous reactions and perverse dislikes, but on the whole I found it more predictable than its Western counterpart and easier to please. I could even name a good many of the men and women who made up its number; for they worked for the Ministry of Culture and the Büro für Urheberrechte, and their names often appeared on the licences that granted permission for publication. Schilling had been my editor ever since I submitted The Orphans of Neustadt for publication more than twenty years earlier. We had risen together, we had faltered together, and now (though this we had yet to acknowledge openly) we were drifting together, living neither in anticipation of the future, nor in fear of it. In short, we were not just business partners. We were friends.
Reprinted from The Valley of Unknowing by Philip Sington. Copyright (c) 2012 by Philip Sington. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.
Set during the years shortly before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Philip Sington's novel The Valley of Unknowing is a fictional memoir penned by Bruno Krug, a smug author anointed the People's Champion of Art and Culture in the Worker and Peasant's State of East Germany. Krug is impressed by his own success and ability to live peacefully within the state security apparatus, an accomplishment few are able to achieve. Krug fancies himself a man of the people he regularly fixes his neighbor's plumbing problems but is also at home in the intelligentsia circles that fawn over his popular novel The Orphans of Neustadt, written twenty years ago. Krug now writes banal stories about life in East Germany that sell well and keep the authorities happy. He is aware of the terrors of life in a totalitarian state, but he insouciantly refuses to make them his problem. Then, one evening, he sees Theresa Aden play viola at an event. He is not looking for romance and is shocked when he discovers that he might actually like the shy West German music student. Perhaps, though, Theresa is not all that she seems. She may or not have been involved with Wolfgang Richter, a talented playwright whose work satirizes Krug's books. When Krug is given the opportunity to assess Richter's brilliant unpublished novel, he wonders if his handling of the manuscript might bind him permanently to Theresa. Unfortunately, Krug's deception is not seamless, and, in the end, the person most deceived may be Krug himself.
The strength of Sington's novel lies in the characterization of Bruno Krug. Because the novel is primarily told from his perspective, we are provided with a truncated view of life in East Germany. At first, the lack of sensory detail and information about day-to-day life in a Soviet satellite society made me feel cheated. It feels as though the reading experience would be enhanced by more description and more vignettes about this world, so different from our own. But that is only until it is realized that Bruno is telling the story, and sensory detail (except for ribald details about his own sexual appetites) do not interest him. Bruno is interested in himself, and this is where Sington's mastery is on display. By creating a charming narcissist who has gotten himself into a troubling scrape, Sington allows us an intimate and evolving portrait of life behind the Iron Curtain.
As Bruno pursues Theresa, concocts his deception, and wrestles with his conscience, he emerges from the cocoon of self-interest into a complicated environment where his actions can have great impact. As Bruno becomes aware of the subtle snares surrounding him, the true insidious nature of life in a totalitarian state is made clear. A word choice, an off-hand comment to a neighbor in the hall, any odd behavior on the tram can draw notice from the authorities, and because of the panopticon nature of the security apparatus, the greatest police force are often the citizens themselves.
Bruno previously viewed himself above these problems but that was because he did not fully understand them. The People's Champion of Art and Culture was a darling of the State and enjoyed a degree of freedom and protection that others do not. We realize the terror of totalitarianism as Bruno does, and the impact is far more stunning than if Sington had merely narrated it. As Bruno comes to terms with the gravity of his deception and the possible punishments he could incur, he becomes paranoid and suspicious. Who is Theresa? What are her motives? Despite Bruno's efforts to effect control, the conclusion of the novel makes clear that the true controller is, and always will be, the authoritarian state.
Philip Sington's novel contemplates serious subjects, but the narrative is often light-hearted and funny. Bruno is self-absorbed, but charming, and the reader soon begins to root for him. Over the course of the story, Sington carefully constructs a complicated world with a robust, nuanced character at the center. Fans of the movie The Lives of Others will enjoy this latest glimpse into life in Germany behind the Iron Curtain.
Reviewed by Sarah Sacha Dollacker
Fans of Philip Kerr will appreciate the historical accuracy and intrigue of this Cold War–era literary thriller.
Starred Review. Atmospheric, poignant, witty, but mournful too, Sington's novel cleverly considers what might have been the back story to real-life tragedies.
The Times (UK)
Remarkable…Superbly anchored in place and time…[A] brilliant, evocative and accurate novel.
The fictional character of Bruno Krug gained international fame with a literary blockbuster The Orphans of Neustadt, but when we meet him at the beginning of his story, he is busy writing simple stories - called the Factory Gate Fables - about life in Actually Existing Socialism. These stories represent typical literature in the U.S.S.R and Soviet-occupied countries in the mid-20th century that correspond with the theory of Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism extends to other art forms but was officially adopted by the Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934 and codified the state's expectations for writers. Socialist Realism demanded that authors create literature that depicted man's struggle towards socialist progress in pursuit of a better life. Literature was required to serve the proletariat by being realistic, optimistic, heroic, and complimentary of the State. Any experimental writing was discouraged.
Understandably, many writers struggled with these strict rules, and some were punished for continuing to create literature that was considered degenerate, pessimistic, or that did not properly laud the Soviet system. Yevgeny Zamyatin and Victor Serge were able to leave the country, but Vladimir Mayakovsky and Sergei Yesenin committed suicide. Other writers, like Isaac Babel and Boris Plinyak, who refused to conform, were executed.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, perhaps the most famous writer of this group, was imprisoned for criticizing Stalin in a letter to a friend. He was sent to a work camp, an experience that prompted him to write the Gulag Archipelago, a series of works that exposed the harshness of the Soviet work camp system and detailed his philosophical transformation from Marxism to Christianity. He was rewarded for his efforts with the Nobel Prize in 1974 for "the ethical force with which he pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature."
Socialist Realism began to wane after Stalin's death. Nikita Krushchev obliquely criticized Socialist Realism when he spoke out against Stalin's policies towards writers in 1957 saying, "You can't lay down a furrow and then harness all your artists to make sure they don't deviate from the straight and narrow. If you try to control your artists too tightly, there will be no clashing of opinions, consequently no criticism, and consequently no truth. There will be just a gloomy stereotype, boring and useless." However, old habits die hard, and, as Bruno experiences, state security agents were still keeping tabs on writers and their work in East Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall.