Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Friday, 31 August 2012

The Valley of Unknowing - Philip Sington

‘Deceit was dangerous, but the truth was suicidal.’

Bruno Krug is a writer in East Germany.  He is principally known for his novel entitled The Orphans of Neustadt, as well as for his Factory Gate Fables, which portray the country’s working masses. The Valley of Unknowing begins with a discovery by a young journalist in Ireland. Then we are taken into a manuscript produced by Krug, which is now in the hands of this journalist. In this work, Krug recalls the momentous events that shaped his final years in his homeland. He is given an anonymous manuscript to read by his editor Michael Schilling. As he reads it, he discovers that it is brilliant, but that it seems to almost be a sequel to his own very famous work. On discovering that the author is in fact Wolfgang Richter, a younger fellow author, he feels a multitude of emotions. Bruno meets a young musician, Theresa Eden, and an initial longing grows to become something more serious. The relationship will shape the rest of his life.

I love fiction based in Germany, and in particular I find it fascinating to read stories that are based in the former German Democratic Republic. For me, this novel felt authentic and it did not disappoint. The plot is intriguing. The world the author creates is believable. He convincingly brings to life the atmosphere of the state: the secrecy, the fear of being watched and spied upon, needing to take care in your actions. Also the determined people who would keep struggling to try and achieve things, despite shortages of funds or goods – witness Frau Wiegmann and her persistence in trying to get the swimming pool reopened; she ‘battled on like a true socialist heroine: exhorting her followers with visions of the promised land, banishing despair and crushing dissent with her indefatigable energy.’ Similarly, Bruno's persistant yet fruitless pursuit of some toothpaste. And transactions would take place that were never quite openly declared or expressed, just understood enough between those involved.

I enjoyed the comments on the craft of writing fiction that the author was able to express through Bruno’s voice, and further the thoughts on the nature of artistry and creativity under ‘Actually Existing Socialism’ as opposed to the Western world of which the view is that ‘cash was king and the customer was always right.’ Bruno observes ‘how could an artist remain true to his own vision – in effect honest – if he allowed his idea of beauty to be dictated by others? This indifference to Western opinion played well with my ideological overseers, who took it as indicative of loyalty. The truth is that I was afraid of what I might hear.’

One of my favourite passages from the novel involves Bruno’s thoughts which are provoked by Gruna Willy, a man reputed to have once been a border guard, now somewhat of a vagrant wondering the streets. Bruno ponders, ‘To rehearse imaginary conversations on paper is called literature. To do so out loud is called madness.’

Bruno is an interesting, flawed character, this writer and sometime plumber. I could imagine Bruno walking the streets of his town in the GDR, as he often did when his mind was troubled. I accompanied him as he went to the concerts in which Theresa played her viola. The evolving emotions that Bruno feels towards Theresa, and the way in which he gradually comes to a deeper understanding of Richter, is fascinating to read. As Bruno is writing his account in the first person, I really felt his conflicting feelings and his struggles over the best course of action, his fears and anxieties. What would happen, I wondered? The author successfully builds suspense in the storyline as the novel slowly progresses; in one sense I didn't find this a fast-paced read, yet I was always intrigued, always interested in what would happen next, and what fate was in store for Bruno and Theresa. I was enthralled to discover how the decisions Bruno makes would ultimately affect his life.

This is a compelling story of love, risk, writing, fear and betrayal, courage and deception. Philip Sington has drawn on the insights and memories of his wife and her family, who resided in the former GDR, to create a credible, distinctive novel. This author is new to me, but I will look to read his previous novel The Einstein Girl now.

Published by Harvill Secker

Originally reviewed for NewBooks magazine, thanks very much to them for sending this book to read and review.

You can visit the author's website here and follow him on twitter @PhilipSington


  1. I won this book in a giveaway. I ought to really pick it up now after this glowing review! Love books about the DDR too. Have you read The Wall Jumper by Peter Schneider? Really great comment of a divided Germany. Review over at my gaff.

    1. Thanks for visiting and commenting. Hope you like this one when you get to it. I haven't read that book but I have been meaning to buy it for some time. I will be over to read your review.


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