Brandenburg, by Henry Porter (review)


Henry Porter              Brandenburg      Orion         £10.00

          Spy novels offer complications. Reading them is like playing poker in half-light: you’re constantly on the look-out for quadruple-bluff, sudden changes of allegiance, friends stabbing each other in the front. Almost anyone could be, and probably is working for someone else, for reasons that are rarely obvious, and sometimes almost inexplicable. People who are dead turn out to be alive; people who are alive turn out to be dead; people have nicknames, code-names, assumed names - even names they didn’t know they had.

          Henry Porter has already played this genre three times with very considerable success. His last novel, Empire State, was a master-class in multiple identity, but also very skilfully written. Brandenburg has the same quality. It doesn’t pester you with its research, nor offer you indigestible chunks of political history; instead it provides something to bite on, and plenty of space in which to chew it. Set in the GDR in the months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Brandenburg also gives its readers a much stronger sense than before that Porter is particularly interested in his subject. Its focus is narrower, its gaze a shade more penetrating.

          This subject is the Stasi, the East German security service for which its main character, Rudi Rosenharte, an art historian, has formerly worked (Porter’s regular, Robert Harland, is present, but only as a benign MI5er, spuddling away in the background). Rosenharte’s twin brother, a film-maker, has been banged up by the Stasi, and Rosenharte knows he can only get his brother released by playing ball with them. They send him to Trieste, to rendezvous with an old flame whom he knows to be dead, one teaser Porter solves only at the novel’s end. In no time, Rosenharte finds himself working for the British, the Americans and the Russians as well: all may or may not be setting him up.

                   But it’s in sketching in the GDR’s paranoid last rites that Porter is at his best (even if it was perhaps too obvious to call the key agent ‘Kafka’). The Stasi have reached a terminal point, having infiltrated society so far that they’ve resorted to spying on each other. They infest Dresden, East Berlin and Leipzig to such an extent that they often seem to outnumber themselves. Porter quietly shows us their complete self-denial in the face of popular uprising. And there is some nice comedy as characters grapple with the day’s still clunky information technology.

                Rosenharte is not entirely loveable, which helps: a heavy drinker, and a womaniser, he is worsted by most of the women, and, although there are some sentimental passages, these too are not over-played (nor is there mindless violence). Porter gives a young Putin a believable bit-part, and enjoys himself enough to carry the readers with him, all the way to Checkpoint Charlie (whose name, I admit, I’d never realised came simply from the ‘C’ in the sequence Alpha, Bravo, Charlie). On the way, he continues to breathe new life into spy fiction, and he continues to outstrip the old-stagers.


From The Independent