Review: Victory Square

Victory Square
Victory Square by Olen Steinhauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What had confused me more than once while reading this and others in the series, is whether the three of them are set in a fictional East European country, or I’ve just missed – or been too stupid to put two and two together, it’s possible – which Eastern European country he’s actually set them in. I began piecing clues together like this – The country is, west of Ukraine. It was overrun by the Germans at the start of WWII. “Early on in the occupation, the Germans had enlisted the help of malcontents from our Ukrainian population. These young men had been promised that, once the war was won, the eastern half of our country (including the capital) would be returned to the Ukraine…” What can be confusing, when trying to figure out what’s going on, is that the previous two books in this series, had their names changed for the publication outside the USA (if I’m right). So it is a relief to stop having to berate myself that I really should be able to place the people and places. A quick visit to Olen Steinhauer’s website and it seems that the novels these reviews were mentioning, ’36 Yalta Boulevard’ and ‘Liberation Movements’, I do actually have. It’s just I have them as The Vienna Assignment and The Istanbul Variations as they were published in the UK. So, I’m not going mad. Quite. Yet. Still, a name like Brano Sev should stick in the memory, I guess. Even if you think it’s a kind of drain cleaner.

Really, anyone who’s been alive in 1988 (apart from me, obviously), is surely going to be reading this and say ‘Romania!’ and the collapse of their version of Communism. Then the pursuit and trial of the husband and wife leaders, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu.

So, ‘Victory Square’ seems to be the final in his series of novels about Brano Sev, Emil Brod and the like. Victory Square completes the cycle/circle (or square!), by taking Brod back to looking into, or at least having to deal with the after-effects, of one of his earliest cases. Back in the days where uncertainty about the right of his leaders to lead wasn’t filling the air and the whole system he knows nothing else of but, is collapsing around his ears. Steinhauer writes the character of Emil Brod really well indeed, writing subtly, but convincingly, the role of a man, thinking he’s too old for this shit, going through the last few days before his retirement. Reaching the end of his (working) life, but facing up to that with the end of the system that sustained him the whole of the life he can remember, means he is in effect going to have to start again, as if his previous life never happened. Imagine that. Add in finding your name on a list of people who are quite clearly being swept away by the new revolutionary broom. Weighty stuff, but made light work by Olen S. There’s a weary bleakness you get, almost without noticing how he’s doing it. Also, the character of Gavra Noukas, another member of the old regime, but younger and maybe even smarter than Brod (though not Sev), having his world rocked to its foundations by being forced to be an part of the trial of the leaders they once revered. He realises he’s being set up, but can’t get out of it, even though he’s not really forced into it. It’s happening almost without him knowing what is happening. I got a distinct impression of how they might be doing this whilst also feeling like they were detached from it all, looking at themselves doing it, because their real selves surely wouldn’t dare. Then, at one point, to put it into perspective for us, Emil Brod says “…I didn’t think about the hypocrisy of the people who had arranged and run the trial.” Hypocrisy because they took part, often willingly in the excesses and crimes they’re now putting the two leaders on trial for. They seem absolved, just because they are doing the accusing. Gavka seems tormented by this hypocrisy too. But more because he can’t find any innocent victims anywhere amongst the accusers. ‘Who am I to cast the first stone?’ Is probably why he has such a hard time at the trial. He had no choice while the regime was functioning and he has no choice now it’s falling apart. It is, as Brod puts it, for many people it is the “end of everything”. They hadn’t contemplated another future for themselves, than that the system provided. They hadn’t needed to and now, they didn’t know how to. But, there are also other forces and other people behind it all (as is always the case) with other reasons for setting it all in motion and profiting from regime change. And the roots of all that, go back, as said to the early days of Brod’s working life and Brano Sev’s subtle machinations.

This isn’t a spy novel, in the traditional sense. It’s more – and also less – than that. More interesting than just an examination of, or an allegory of, the collapse of Communism and a lot less action than a le Carre, or ‘Bond’ or (certainly) ‘Bourne’. I think it’s quite possible that different readers will get a lot of different things from the same book. By focussing in on the seemingly mundane, the stark reality and forcedly dull dreams of the people, he is of course, illuminating the big problems and faults in the system that has otherwise provided everything the people need. Except the people who have decided what the people need, aren’t the ‘people’ themselves. A person in a Olen Steinhauer novel, might appear to be dull and lead a dull life, but they dream of being a free dull person in the west and deciding just how dull their life is, for themselves.

Thought provoking and interesting, with many hours of after-contemplation. Always the sign of a really good book, I find.

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