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Authors: Philip Sington

The Valley of Unknowing

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THE VALLEY OF UNKNOWING

PHILIP SINGTON

Dedication

For my father, Peter, in memory

Also by Philip Sington

Zoia’s Gold

The Einstein Girl

FOREWORD

The following pages represent the last completed work of Bruno Krug, the celebrated (and reviled) East German novelist, who spent the final ten years of his life in Ireland, and who died in a still unexplained tragedy twelve months ago. It is also his only work in English. I interviewed Herr Krug a few weeks before his death, the last journalist ever to do so and one of the last people to see him alive. It was on account of our meeting that his manuscript came into my possession.

My involvement began a little over twelve months ago, when I was contacted by Mareike Becker, a college friend from Munich. Now working on a local Bavarian newspaper, she told me of some extraordinary revelations that had just surfaced from the files of the East German secret police (popularly known as the Stasi). In the dying days of the communist regime, many of these secret records – fifty million pages in all – were torn up, shredded or burned by Stasi officers. Their main aim was to protect the identities of key informers in the general population, of which there were in all some 180,000. After reunification in 1990, a Federal commission was given the job of preserving the Stasi files, and reassembling the mutilated documents. Mareike had a contact inside the commission, which is based in the small town of Zirndorf, and was able to send me copies of eleven reconstructed pages, all recovered from Stasi Regional Headquarters in Saxony.

These pages came from a series of reports by an unidentified informer whose code name was ‘Nachtigall’ (Nightingale). It was clear that ‘Nachtigall’ enjoyed a position at the heart of the East German cultural establishment. In briefings with his or her handler, ‘Nachtigall’ made allegations that could easily have resulted in the harassment, trial or imprisonment of the individuals named. This was not the only point of interest. From the same source came a startling suggestion of literary theft. According to ‘Nachtigall’, a well-known international best-seller, originally published to acclaim in West Germany (and subsequently adapted for the screen in America), was not the work of the supposed author, but of an East German citizen who – for reasons that will become clear – was in no position to assert his rights.

A common thread running through all these reports was the name of Bruno Krug.

I did not know until Mareike contacted me that Krug was living not in Germany, but a few hundred kilometres away in County Cork – reportedly as a recluse. For me, as for many students of post-war European literature, Krug’s masterpiece
The Orphans of Neustadt (Die Waisenkinder von Neustadt)
was not only a set text, but a favourite one. The juxtaposition of harsh and gritty realism, drawn from the author’s own boyhood experiences, with the youthful passion of its young protagonists, made this love story irresistible. The critic George Steiner described the work as ‘a flowering of hope amidst a wasteland of brutality, deprivation and fear’.

Krug’s life story was as intriguing as his fiction. Losing both parents in the war, he was rescued from the streets and given shelter by a great-uncle who taught modern languages in the city of Halle, famous as the birthplace of Handel. When his great-uncle died, Krug completed his childhood at a state orphanage, before training as a plumber, a trade he continued to practise on a freelance basis for many years.

For all his talent, Krug was a controversial figure in the West. Unlike many artists, he remained in East Germany until its demise and was handed a plethora of awards by the state. With access to foreign currency, he enjoyed a standard of living normally available only to senior functionaries in the ruling Socialist Unity Party. In the early 1980s he was repeatedly attacked as a propagandist for the regime. One American columnist famously described him as ‘a Potemkin village in prose’. In response, left-leaning commentators defended him as a man of principle who had chosen not to abandon his ideals for the sake of a Western lifestyle. Krug’s later works, collectively known as the
Factory Gate Fables,
enjoyed little success outside the Soviet bloc, but supporters continued to praise them as examples of literature aimed not at academic or critical elites, but at ordinary working people.

After extensive enquiries, I learned that Krug had taken up teaching at an adult education college in Bantry. The staff were anxious to shield their local celebrity from unwanted attention, but in the end I succeeded in contacting him. I explained in general terms what had prompted my enquiry. The writer came over as wary, but agreed to meet me. Afraid he might change his mind, I drove down from Dublin the very next day.

I recognised Krug at once. The squarish face, the full head of grey hair, the dark eyebrows, the pupils like black glass, the suggestion of self-parody (or was it mischief?) in his smile and his gaze – those same features that had appealed to me as a teenager – they were unmistakable. His struck me as a quiet but forceful presence, his dry good humour interrupted by moments of reflection and sadness, which he did not explain and struggled to conceal. I was reminded of what the actress Martina Hagen, with whom Krug had a brief affair in the 1970s, wrote in her autobiography: that Krug ‘was at heart a romantic, but in a time and place where romantic ideals were very hard to sustain. I sensed that behind his encroaching cynicism lay disappointment, and I worried where it would lead him.’

To begin with I focused my questions on issues relating to the writer’s life and work. Krug mentioned that he was writing something about his last years in East Germany, but the book was apparently incomplete, and he declined to say more about it. Finally, I felt able to put before him the documents Mareike Becker had sent me, and to raise the issue of the Stasi informer known as ‘Nachtigall’.

I had the strong sense that something in the information from Zirndorf came as a shock to him. He stared at the papers for a long time, saying nothing, seemingly oblivious to my presence. My questions from that point were greeted with polite reticence.

I returned to Dublin without the breakthrough I had hoped for, and shortly afterwards left for a lengthy assignment in London. When I got back two weeks later, I found Krug’s manuscript waiting for me. Its appearance came as a complete surprise. Its contents surprised me even more.

Long before I had finished reading, I picked up the phone and called the author’s number. I tried again the next morning. On both occasions, for reasons which are now well known, there was no answer.

Olivia Connelly, journalist

Dublin, Republic of Ireland

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.

We left the building. Since my last visit a large hoarding had been erected outside, bearing a slogan in red capitals:

TO CYCLE EACH DAY

IS THE SOCIALIST WAY!

Ignoring this inspirational statement, we crossed the square on foot and continued to Wilsdrufferstrasse, a bland, well-swept avenue of sandy-hued apartment blocks and a sprinkling of shops. Schilling led me into a pedestrian alley where the wares of various retail outlets – reconditioned watches, alarm clocks, lace, tableware – were on display in free-standing glass cabinets. By now I was expecting a quiet tête-à-tête in a shadowy drinking hole, but the establishment Schilling was anxious to show me turned out to be a glass-fronted
Eiscafé
that went by the name of Tutti Frutti. Inside, melting under bright lights, were three varieties of ice cream. Behind the counter sat an impressive-looking coffee machine, but there was no coffee to go with it; so Schilling and I each bought a cone and perched on a pair of stools, catching glances from the children and bleach-blonde matrons who made up the rest of the clientele.

Schilling started in with a series of routine questions concerning my health (tolerable), my work (officially ongoing, actually dormant), my social life (satisfactory, if repetitive), responding to my answers with earnest nods of the head, slow licks of his ice cream and frequent glances out of the window. All the while, the document wallet sat tightly wedged between his thighs, like a bomb that needed pressure to keep from going off.

Eventually silence fell.

‘Michael, what’s the matter? You’re acting strangely. It’s making my stomach hurt.’

Schilling blushed. ‘I’m sorry. Paul’s coming down this weekend. At least he said he was. You know how he . . .’

Yes, I did know. Paul was Schilling’s son, now twenty-two, the sole issue from a brief and disastrous marriage to the lovely Magdalena Bonner – her post-nuptial loveliness proving skin deep, as I’d suspected it would. Schilling loved his son, but the best I could manage was to pity him, stuck as he was with a selfish, materialistic mother and an absent father. Paul brought to Schilling little these days but grief. After his military service, which he had been lucky to complete without a court martial, he had abandoned the maternal flat in central Berlin and taken up with a pack of dropouts in Pankow.

I would have taken less interest in the whole sorry business had I not felt in some degree responsible. The truth is that Magdalena Bonner would never have taken the slightest interest in a bookish myopic like Michael had it not been for his connection to
The Orphans of Neustadt
. For a good few years the success of that book lent us both an aura of glamour and distinction; qualities that more than made up for any deficiency in looks. I’d had just enough experience with women to be on my guard against mercenary love, but poor Schilling who, as far as I could tell, had never had a proper girlfriend (and only a limited number of sexual encounters, mostly of the fumbling, outdoor variety) was easy prey.

‘Does Paul have a job yet?’ I asked.

‘Oh, yes. Caretaker, at some sort of gun club.’

‘A gun club? Is that wise?’

‘Don’t joke. I just hope he sticks with it. You know, until something . . .’

Until something better comes along was the unarticulated sentiment; one we both knew was best left uncritiqued.

On the other side of the street a man in a grey anorak was taking a long time lighting a cigarette. Schilling watched him intently, his tongue frozen on the rim of his ice cream.

‘Someone you know?’ I asked. (Such instances of paranoia always irritated me.)

My question went unanswered. The stranger discarded his match and walked away. Schilling’s tongue returned to duty. ‘By the way, Bruno. There’s something I’d like your opinion on.’

I pointed at the bulky wallet between his thighs. ‘That?’

Schilling pushed it further under the table. ‘Yes. It’s a novel. It’s . . . well, I don’t want to influence you. It’s important you have an open mind.’

A novel. So that was it: nothing threatening or sinister – boring most likely, but no worse than that.

‘What’s it about?’

‘The future. At least, it’s set in the future.
A
future. The whole thing has a mythic quality.’

The last mythic novel I had tackled had been written by the leading literary
grande dame
of our little republic: an ancient Greek legend revisited from a Marxist-feminist perspective. I hoped it wasn’t one of
those.

‘You think I’ll like it?’

‘I won’t predict your reaction, although . . .’ Schilling checked himself. ‘Let’s just say, you’re uniquely qualified to appraise it. I mean that literally. I’m very anxious to know what you think.’

I wasn’t a critic, at least not the kind whose name appears in newspapers and literary journals. My views on contemporary literature were given sparingly and always off the record. But it was hard not to be touched by Schilling’s faith. He had never given up the hope that I would one day write something as heartfelt and successful as
The Orphans of Neustadt
; that the old creative force still dwelt within me, waiting only for the appropriate socio-intellectual conditions to burst forth.

‘So who’s it by, then?’

Schilling looked cagey.

‘Wait a minute.’ An idea had occurred to me, one which, for some reason, I found comic. ‘It’s you, isn’t it? This is
your
book.’

‘What’s so funny about that?’

I must have laughed, which was not polite.

‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘I’m surprised, that’s all. You never said anything about . . .’

Schilling leaned closer. ‘It’s not my book, all right? I haven’t written a book. For God’s sake, what would
I
write about? What do
I
know?’

Melted ice cream was running over his knuckles. He cursed, switching the cone from one hand to the other.

‘I didn’t mean . . .’

‘It doesn’t matter. Look, if you’re too busy . . .’

But I wasn’t too busy. I hadn’t been too busy in years. We both knew that very well.

I was still feeling guilty about my hurtful outburst when we left Tutti Frutti and hurried back towards Ferdinandsplatz. By this time it was raining in earnest and soon Schilling was sneezing. His raincoat was old and leaked at the seams. After use it left him looking as though he suffered from a terrible sweating problem, with wet patches under his arms and down his back.

‘I meant to tell you,’ I said, as we ducked into a doorway. ‘I bought this new raincoat at the Intershop. A good one, English. Then I got it home and found it didn’t fit. Would you believe it? Too narrow at the shoulders. You can have it, if you like. It’d fit you much better than me.’

If Schilling wasn’t convinced by my story, it wasn’t for lack of effort on my part. After I had extemporised upon the difficulties involved in obtaining a refund he said, ‘I could certainly do with a new one. How much would you . . . ?’

‘Don’t be silly,’ I said. ‘I’ll be glad to give it a good home.’

It was time to go. I held out my hand for the manuscript. Schilling began extracting it from the document wallet, then changed his mind and gave me the whole thing.

A tram pulled up at a nearby stop, passengers spewing out as if under pressure. I shook my friend’s hand and jumped aboard.

‘Bruno!’ he called after me. ‘Be careful with that, will you? It’s the only copy.’

I made a big show of tucking the novel under my jacket and gave Schilling a wave through the closing doors. It didn’t strike me as odd that the manuscript had not been copied, the right to textual reproduction being restricted in the Workers’ and Peasants’ State to the organs of government, the church and public libraries. If Schilling had not made a copy, I assumed this was due to the technical and bureaucratic difficulties involved. That he might be anxious to protect the author (and himself) from some unspecified threat occurred to me hardly at all.

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