Friday, November 25, 2005

Henry Porter: Brandenburg

I must confess that I began to read Henry Porter's Brandenburg with high hopes, but I ended up feeling very disappointed. And before stating the reasons for that disappointment, here is a bit of background.

Henry Porter is British. He is a former journalist for top newspapers and magazines, and still seems to work as the British editor of Vanity Fair. He has written three previous espionage thrillers which have enjoyed considerable success: Remembrance Day (1999), A Spy's Life (2001), and Empire State (2003). I have read them all, and have written about them here, mostly with approval.

Porter is clearly one of the good guys: read his interview (admittedly with a very friendly interviewer, Max Hastings) in a recent edition of the Guardian, and you will see that he has all the right instincts. He also has personal experience of the subject of Brandenburg, which is the unpleasantness (to put it politely) of the old East German regime, before the wall fell down.

Brandenburg tells the story, chiefly, of one East German citizen, formerly a member of the Stasi (think Gestapo), who becomes heavily involved in spying for the west. And if it's about anything, I would say that this book is about courage; with a Cold War background.

The Guardian interview reveals some interesting facts. On the basis of his track record so far, Porter expects to sell 25,000 hardbacks of Brandenburg, plus 100,000 paperbacks, and to be published in 13 countries. Empire State, we learn, was not published in the US because the publisher couldn't take the idea of the CIA torturing people. I find that, frankly, a very unconvincing reason for rejecting a book, given the highly uncomplimentary picture of the CIA which has been presented by countless US writers; and maybe it was just a polite excuse because they didn't think the book was all that impressive.

So far so good then. We have here an author with all the right background, lots of critical approval, plenty of readers, and a wonderful subject which he has well researched. You can understand why I licked my lips. And the book turns out to be intelligent, literate, and thoughtful.

So where, you may be wondering, does it all go wrong?

And the answer lies in the length. This thing, exactly like his other ones, is just TOO DAMN LONG. By way of comparison, I went to the book shelf and picked out three Ian Fleming books at random. The first one was just under 250 pages, and the other two were less than 200.

Now hear this. If Ian Fleming could create one of the half-dozen most famous and durable thriller/espionage characters of the twentieth century, in books of about 200 pages a time, then there is no need for the Henry Porters of this world to bang on and on for 426 pages. It is not productive. It doesn't help. It dilutes, rather than enhances, the effect.

Somebody -- agent, publisher, or pal like Max Hastings -- should seize Porter by the throat and give him a bloody good shaking. These books are too long, Henry! TOO DAMN LONG! Got it? Good.

That's the chief problem. There are others. I found the principal love story to be quite unconvincing. Sorry, but I did. I also found the way in which the characters bounce back from being tortured and abused to be a bit unrealistic. Sorry again.

I really wanted to like it Brandenburg. I really did. Few readers are more enthusiastic about the modern thriller than I am. But Henry Porter's whole approach to the genre seems to me to need a thorough rethink.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think that you are being overly harsh in your judgement of Brandenburg. I was disappointed when it ended, it was a wonderfully engaging and plausible story. Lighten up!

Anonymous said...

After reading your comments about Henry Porter's book, Brandenburg, I realise why some British publishers rejected a modern political thriller, The Balkans Conspiracy for publication in the UK.
However, Dr John Eddy, Professor of History at ANU said "...should be compulsory reading for those who need to grasp more fully the meaning of the disruption of the Austro-Hunagarian empire impact of totalitariannism and two world wars..."
Vladimir
P.S. Could you please let me know Henry's email address.

Krishna Kumar said...

Dear Mr. Allen

I recently finished my second reading of BRANDENBURG. I won't be surprised if your eyes go agape to hear that someone actually read it twice. Well, the first time I read it as another espionage novel.I should say, inspite of the length, it was a page turner, really. Also, since I had been in that parts of the country Mr.Porter writes about, I could relate a lot to the people, place etc he describes and hence could sustain my reading. The second time reading was on account of some research I did. I guess the length is required for Mr.Porter's own purpose and objectives, one of which I conjecture is the book's literary and historic aspirations. Unlike Fleming, who cared for none except the sole purpose of write to entertain, I guess Henry Porter takes a lot more pain in descriptive narration. It may not rank as one of the top-100 literary fiction, but BRANDENBURG's aspirations are not totally out of sync with its style. I guess bits of GDR still sticks to Germany in these parts such as Leipzig Magdeburg and Dresden. May be you should visit these places to understand that. But I completely agree with you on the characters rebounding with doubled grit after Stasi torture.

dan said...

Dan Bloom in Taiwan. i am trying to locagte HEnry Porter email address, URGENT, re global warming, do yoy know his email address by any chance.if so email me at danbloom AT
gmail
DOT
com

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