“The Valley of Unknowing” is the story of Bruno Krug, an East German writer whose best work, the novel “The Orphans of Nested,” was written 20 years ago. It was good — good enough for him to be honored as a literary champion of what he liked to refer to The Workers and Peasants State — but he knew it could have been better. He’d pulled his punches to avoid the attention of state security.
Krug doesn’t write much anymore and seems content with his mediocrity until two events occur. Theresa Aden, an Austrian viola player half his age catches his eye, and his editor asks him to read an untitled manuscript. The manuscript happens to be by a cocky young screenwriter who’s poked fun at Krug’s fiction, and it happens to be outstanding. It was the sort of bold novel Krug wanted to write but had been afraid to. Worse, the author, Wolfgang Richter, seems to be wooing the viola player Krug is enamored with.
The plot thickens when Richter, who was last seen being assisted into mysterious car, turns up dead. Although word is spread that he had caught something contagious and dangerous, his parents are certain there was more to it. Krug himself wonders whether something he had said to state security hacks had something to do with Richter’s death.
Guilt-ridden, he doesn’t know what to do with Richter’s manuscript, which he has learned is titled “The Valley of Unknowing.” When Theresa sees it in his flat and loves it, he decides to use it win her over. He tells it it’s called simply “The Valley” and allows her to believe it’s his, but he dare not publicly claim authorship. He clings to a semblance of honor, and besides, his editor — who wants nothing to do with the manuscript — knows Richter actually wrote it.
For lack of better idea, Theresa agrees to shop the manuscript to publishers the West in her own name. It’s a hit; she is toasted as a new literary star in the West while Bruno suffers silently in the East. When he asks her to marry him, she says maybe some day. Some day never comes.
Recognizing she won’t live with him in the East, Krug plots to escape via a discreet network to the West, but is betrayed. Though he could serve several years in prison, state security turns him loose. Not long after that, East Germans rise against their masters, and Krug’s friends in state security start burning evidence that would incriminate untold thousands of citizens who had cooperated with them.
“The Valley of Unknowing” is superbly written. Its characters with their various flaws are sympathetic. Theresa knows all the notes to play on her viola but lacks the passion of her fellow musicians. Krug is at times a defeated man at other times an astute observer of life in East Germany who relies on his dark humor to cope. Describing the color palate of his dreary existence, he says, “I have only to close my eyes and there they are, the distinctive hues of Actually Existing Socialism: grey, brown, grey-brown, caramel brown, rust brown, brown ochre, burnt sienna, coffee, beige. These are the colors of the apartment blocks and factories, offices and shops, of construction and decay and all points in between…”
At another point, early in his relationship with Theresa, Krug finds himself in a near panic when he realizes he’s out of toothpaste and can’t find any in the stores because of a mercury-poisoning scare that’s cleared the shelves.
“The Valley of Unknowing” is the compelling but sad story of a man who is running out of reasons to begin each day. There’s little heroic about Bruno Krug, but you’re nevertheless in his corner the entire way.
The author, Philip Sington, has been a magazine editor and business journalist, and has written two other novels, “Zoia’s Gold” and “The Einstein Girl.” He credits his wife, Uta, who grew up in East Germany, for her insights into life there.
Walt Braun is the Manhattan Mercury’s editorial editor.