Excerpt from The Valley of Unknowing by Philip Sington, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Valley of Unknowing

by Philip Sington

The Valley of Unknowing
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  • Published:
    Dec 2012, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Sacha Dollacker

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Print Excerpt


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.

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