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Friday, January 9, 2009

Brandenburg Gate, by Henry Porter (trade, $13)

Not-quite-valid reasons to choose a book: The front cover is pretty; the author has the same first name as you; it has more than 300 pages; the main character sounds like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whose TV series you miss; the author's name sounds like Harry Potter.

When Remembrance Day came out a few years ago, I picked it up because of the last reason and the title sounded intriguing. I had never heard of the author or the book. I found out that it was a novel of intrigue written with intelligence, and I hoped to read more by Porter. Unfortunately, I missed Brandenburg Gate (c2005) when it first came out, so this is a belated review.

According to the biography on the back cover, Porter is a journalist and the British editor of Vanity Fair. He also has a sense of history, which is a good thing because this is a novel about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even though we know what happened to the Berlin Wall, Porter builds up anticipation and suspense leading up to its physical and political fall.

Rudi Rosenharte -- ex-East German spy, current art scholar, twin -- must free his twin brother, Konrad, from a high security prison in Dresden. Konrad is being held to force Rudi once again to be a spy. Various East German interests need Rudi to make contact with a former lover, a NATO employee who has passed secrets to the East Germans in the past. What the East Germans don't realize is that Rudi had been a double agent.

With help from the British and -- could it be? -- the Russians, Rudi attempts to play the dangerous double game of bringing in a Trojan Horse to aid in the destruction of the GDR instead of the information about the West's technology the East Germans expect. He eventually meets a young woman, Ulrike Klaar, a dissident who courageously fans the public antipathy towards the Communist government. For her own reasons, she helps Rudi find a Middle East terrorist whose location Rudi can trade to the Westerners for aid in rescuing Konrad. After they join forces, to the reader's benefit, the plot increases in complexity. Done against the backdrop of the disintegration of the GDR, Porter weaves facts with his fiction and the result is compelling.

There are times when the mushy stuff detracts from the wonderful portrait of a society in chaos, but in general Porter captures the shadowy world of le Carré-style spy-versus-spy with great authenticity.

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