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by Oleg Steinhauer
St Martin's Minotaur, June 2005
320 pages
ISBN: 0312332017

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Periodically throughout Olen Steinhauer's 36 YALTA BOULEVARD, Cold War-era protagonist Brano Sev finds himself feeling zbrka, a sensation his Yugoslav sometime lover defines as "the confusion of too many thing[s]"

36 YALTA BOULEVARD calls up plenty of zbrka for the reader, as well. The novel could accurately be described as a political thriller, but its strengths lie not only in the suspenseful plotting, but also in the painstakingly detailed, stark yet empathetic depiction of life behind the Iron Curtain in 1967.

Steinhauer is a US-born permanent resident of Hungary who first travelled to eastern Europe on a Fulbright scholarship in Romania and now lives in Budapest. His sources include the parents of a friend from the former Yugoslavia. You'll want to read 36 YALTA BOULEVARD twice: once rapidly, chasing the plot, and then more slowly, to think about all the observations encountered in passing.

The title refers to the address of the headquarters of the secret police of Brano's never-identified fictional country. When the book begins, Brano, a 40-something sincerely dedicated agent for Yalta, as the bureau is known, wakes up on the wrong side of the curtain, in Vienna. He has survived a fight, but with partial and temporary amnesia and the library card of one Bertrand Richter, whom he is certain is not himself.

When Sev is reunited with Yalta's Vienna resident Josef Lochert, he learns that the evening before, he murdered Richter. Did he? Why? And if, as Lochert claims, he did right in doing so, then why is he subsequently sent back east of the Wall, to work as a third-in-command at a factory in his dismal home town of Bobrka?

From these questions Steinhauer spins a complex story that takes Brano back across the border to Austria where he gets involved with spies and counterspies, a scurrilous group of Christian fundamentalists from America cooking up a dangerous scheme to fight godless Communism, and a plot that may determine both Branošs future and that of Europe.

Steinhauer's description brings Brano's world into focus with the intensity of a bare light bulb suddenly switched on. In the back of a lorry, Brano waits with the clients of a people-trafficking ring:

"They heard the thin man climb out of the cab and talk with the border guards, make a joke and laugh. Then footsteps around the back of the truck. The snap of the lock being opened, doors unlatched. Brano heard the boy's quick inhale, and when the doors opened gray late-morning light bled through the boxes."

One tiny criticism of the book might be that British readers may find Steinhauer's use of American dialect vocabulary in Brano's interior monologues jarring. 'Truck' makes regular appearances, and when Brano drops a nail with messages inscribed on it through a hole cut in his pants, he means his trousers, not his underwear. But then, it is published by St Martin's, based in New York. Maybe if there is a British edition, Steinhauer will alter some of the words, though if he doesn't, the book will still be a great read.

In Brano, Steinhauer has impressively created a protagonist with whom it's very difficult to sympathise. Brano is a secret agent, he's killed people for his state's totalitarian regime, and his belief that this is good and necessary has melted over the years into a blind obedience to his superiors and their tattered ideals.

Despite all that, Brano grows on the reader, rather like a very hardy species of lichen. Too abject to be an evil genius, he remains fascinating in his mundaneness, and yet more likeable than the more astute politicals and active fanatics (of Communist and Capitalist affiliation) with whom he contends.

I couldn't help being acutely aware, as I read on, that Brano will be in his 70s or early 80s when the Berlin wall falls. How will he cope with having given his life to a dream that failed, and with living his last years with his neighbours knowing what he once did? When the book's other mysteries are solved, this one remains.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, December 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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