The Valley of Unknowing

  • Philip Sington
  • W. W. Norton
  • 304 pp.

In this haunting thriller set in the twilight of Communist East Germany, an author missteps in a changing world and loses his dream.

Reviewed by Arthur Kerns

The Valley of Unknowing is the sort of novel that once you’ve finished reading it you regret having to put it away in the bookshelf. Philip Sington has successfully combined a poignant love story with a seductive thriller.

In Dresden during the last days of the German Democratic Republic — Communist East Germany — we find the writer, Bruno Krug, who 20 years before had written a classic novel, The Orphans of Neustadt. His book was recognized as a masterpiece both at home and beyond the Iron Curtain. Honored and feted in his home country, he has produced only mundane stories since his blockbuster success. Still, he is comfortable, has made accommodations with living in a dysfunctional society, and manages to view his world with an ironic sense of humor. Aside from the royalties from his books, he has income from part-time plumbing jobs. The latter occupation burnishes his socialistic credentials, as well as gaining access to the country’s barter system, where toothpaste is a luxury item, ice cream comes in only one flavor (pistachio), and obtaining cement for the construction of a community pool involves byzantine political maneuvering.

At a concert, Krug sees and is entranced with a young blonde woman playing the viola. Krug’s world changes. The musician, Theresa Aden, has also caught the eye of Wolfgang Richter, an arrogant young filmmaker who publicly enjoys taunting Krug for his failure to follow up on the success of his tour de force. After the concert, Krug watches Richter leave with the girl on his arm.

One day, Krug’s publisher hands him a mysterious manuscript to critique. He finds the book not only good, but also disturbingly similar in style to his own work, Orphans of Neustadt. He realizes it’s the sequel he could never write. Also, he notes the manuscript has dangerous political overtones.

The author of this manuscript, Krug then learns, is none other than Wolfgang Richter, and he both envies and admires the young upstart. Krug, like so many of the East German citizens, is a police informant and during a meeting with his handlers, he fingers his rival as a person to be watched. A short time later, Richter dies reportedly of meningitis. Krug and Theresa become lovers and one day in his apartment she finds and reads the manuscript. She believes Krug wrote it and convinces him to publish it in the West in her name, which he does.

In an icy tone, Krug narrates his world of irritating material shortages and a hypocritical system. The descriptions of life in East Germany are vivid. The place is grim, decaying, and polluted, and the oppressiveness and menace of daily life have tainted the narrator’s behavior and outlook. He is a success because he not only accepts his condition but embraces it. He shamelessly justifies to himself his betrayal of Richter to the secret police. He finds love in a trusting woman, then tragically abandons her. He slips and places his life in the hands of a friend who betrays him.

As the end approaches for the Workers and Peasants Republic, Krug realizes that he no longer is in tune with the East Germans demonstrating in the streets, the same people who still revere his famous novel. He’s become a tragic embodiment of the old regime. And, like the old regime, he might be unreliable. Philip Sington makes skillful use of Krug’s conversations with the other characters, like Theresa and Krug’s publisher, to suggest that Krug’s take on his personal relationships aren’t always consistent with what is revealed.

Sington’s recreation of a past world, in this case the oppressive society of East Germany, brings to mind the masterful Alan Furst, whose classic spy novels depict Europe just before World War II. Like Furst, Sington creates well-drawn supporting characters; even the secret police are believable and don’t come across as stick figures.

At first, the story moves slowly, but gradually the tension rises and the plot becomes complex and the pace relentless. If one reads carefully, the clues to this thriller are salted throughout the book. Sington doesn’t miss a step. The story is a haunting one of a flawed man who stumbles in a changing world and loses a dream, and the novel surprises up to the last page.

Arthur Kerns is a retired FBI special agent and is a past president of the Arizona chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO). His award-winning short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. His espionage thriller, The Riviera Contract is scheduled for publication in early 2013.

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