Monday, July 17, 2006

Steinhauer Rules

While we all wait with high hopes for LIBERATION MOVEMENTS, Olen Steinhauer's latest in his stunning series of political thrillers about policemen at work in an unnamed Eastern European country, here's what I said about its immediate predecessor, just out in paperback:

The series began with a setting in 1948 for The Bridge of Sighs, in which an idealistic young recruit named Emil Brod had to deal with the problem of proving to his colleagues that he wasn't a spy for the new, pro-Russian regime. Then came The Confession, set in 1956--the story of another homicide detective, Ferenc Kolyeszar, a talented novelist at work on a book about the fate of artists in the Soviet-dominated satellite countries.

36 Yalta Boulevard, the third entry in Steinhauer's fascinating and original series, begins in 1966 and has as its central character a man at first glance much less colorful than Brod or Kolyeszar. At 50, Brano Sev has achieved the rank of major in the country's state security office. He lives alone, has a limited social life and sexual history, and is famous for his loyalty and devotion to his superiors at 36 Yalta Blvd., in the country's capital city. But when an operation to eliminate a traitor goes bad in Vienna, Sev is sent home in disgrace, booted out of the security service and given a lowly, tedious factory job. He accepts the demotion without complaint, believing he will be reinstated eventually.

His chance at redemption comes when he is ordered to return to Bobrka, his native village in the north of the country, to track a possible defector. Sev hasn't been home for years, but it holds a large part of his history, including sending his father out of the country rather than risk the inevitable imprisonment the former farmer would face because of his forced collaboration with Nazi occupiers:

"It seemed that everything was already known to him in this town of less than four hundred; everything was tactile. The lit windows with their rough lace curtains, the tire-mangled road, the sharp grass springing up in his headlights, the fogged windows of the village's one bar and the old man shivering outside in the cold with a beer in his hand, watching Brano's Trabant roll past."

One reviewer of The Confession compared Steinhauer to Graham Greene, but his latest is more in the Eric Ambler tradition of people in unwilling exile. Brano's tortuous journey out of Bobrka takes him back to Vienna, where among the dangers and temptations are a much-younger Yugoslavian woman who apparently loves him, as well as an anti-communist group of religious fundamentalists, funded by the U.S. government, who offer another kind of freedom.

After much physical and mental suffering, Sev is following a suspicious character in Vienna. Steinhauer says late in the book:
"This was a young man's job, creeping around a metropolis, tracking people while remaining invisible. Decades ago, Brano had found the minutiae interesting, sometimes exciting, but he no longer remembered why. All the older Brano found himself desiring . . . was a life that looked a lot like retirement."

Sev might think this at the time, but in the end he makes a decision that at first seem surprising but really is inevitable.