Magazine article The Spectator

Dancing in the Dark

Magazine article The Spectator

Dancing in the Dark

Article excerpt

Philip Hensher's third novel begins with `the East German snow falling on the quiet East German barricaded transit motorway' one New Year's Eve back in that remote time before the Wall came down. Peter Picker, the English owner of a stranded car, has gone for help, and Friedrich and Daphne, the two strangers he is driving to Berlin, dance in the roadway:

Silent they were, and serious, unsmiling; and those few who passed them as they danced in the snow on the fast-cracking surface of the transit road saw something unimaginable, a solemn gesture of absurdity, like the absorbed games of children.

These three are the main characters. By the end of the novel, when the Wall has come down, Peter Picker's young son will have died of meningitis, the aimless Friedrich will have tried to cheat Picker of large sums in a dope racket and will have been 'pleasured' in his first homosexual traffic, and the waifish Daphne, whose name is no more real than the life she leads, will have found that the anti-capitalist Mario, with whom she had trashed yuppie bars until she grew wary of his terrorist friends, was in fact an East German agent.

There is something in the grave trajectory of this novel that persuades me it was Philip Hensher's ambition to do, if not a Tolstoy, then at least a J. G. Farrell. Now I take it that no author can be offended to learn that he is not a Tolstoy; and the deft cultural ironies of Farrell were a skill to be aspired to but, I suspect, rarely achieved. If Hensher's comments on the passage of humanity over the face of the abiding earth can be a touch Teutonic, if his evocation of Berlin is impressionist rather than specific, that may not matter much: his intelligence remains captivating, and I may be the only one who cares about the rare slip he does make. (The glass cases on Frederick the Great's 'vineyard' at Sans Souci have long contained espalier figs, not vines. …

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