“The Valley of Unknowing,” the new novel by Philip Sington, opens with a forward written by an Irish journalist who explains that the book we are about to read is the last one that was ever written by a German novelist named Bruno Krug.
Of course this entire setup is a fiction, but it is a clever way to introduce us to our narrator Bruno Krug. His story takes place behind the Iron Curtain during the waning days of what were formerly known as the Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe.
It is somewhat astonishing to recall that only 25 years ago citizens of these countries were rarely allowed to travel in the West. The fictional Krug resided in East Germany. He was well respected. His novel “The Orphans of Neustadt” had earned him accolades and the good graces of the government.
As Bruno narrates his tale we discover that since writing that book years ago he has been mostly coasting. He still writes, but his output, essays he calls “Factory Gate Fables,” are essentially propaganda meant to prop up the regime.
Like many of his fellow citizens, Krug is also an informer. He has regular meetings with a couple of shady characters who expect him to provide them with information that will help them to expose and punish traitors.
Krug is rather indolent, he’s a plumber by trade and he does some occasional plumbing when it suits him. He’s somewhat dishonest and not particularly likable, so why should we care about him or his story? That’s the beauty of what Sington imagines here. Krug’s lack of integrity ensnares him in a situation that eventually spirals out of control.
Krug’s deceptions alter history. His dishonesty and jealousy cause ripples that become a tsunami by the end of the book. This reviewer found himself craving Krug’s comeuppance.
Without giving too much away here’s what transpires: As the story starts Krug’s publisher hands him the only copy of a manuscript of a new novel. This story becomes the book within this book. This is a novel that was written by a screenwriter named Wolfgang Richter.
Krug reads it and is deeply troubled by it. He recognizes it as a brilliant and dangerous work. It contains a subtle critique of the government. Richter had obviously been inspired by Krug’s book “The Orphans of Neustadt.” Krug is filled with envy and awe. He believes that he should have written it, instead of Richter.
When Krug meets Theresa Aden, a young music student, he’s instantly infatuated. Later he observes her with the screenwriter Richter. Krug’s jealousy proves lethal. Richter dies mysteriously, then Bruno and Theresa become lovers. She spots Richter’s manuscript and asks if this is Krug’s next book? Krug lies and declares that it is. The grinding gears of fate are now fully engaged.
“The Valley of Unknowing” unspools with strangling strands of terrifying farce. This novel was a true joy to read.
THIS WEEK’S BOOK
“The Valley of Unknowing” by Philip Sington (Norton, 298 pages, $25.95)