Sunday, September 03, 2006

Olen Steinhauer's Bridge of Sighs

(Image from Contemporary Nomad)

While I was living in Switzerland back in the latter 1980s, I had a Swiss girlfriend named Monika Thommen who introduced me to Friedrich Glauser, a Swiss-German author of several detective novels. I read them haltingly, in German, at first, but with increasing fluency as my language skills improved.

I especially enjoyed his 1932 novel, Der Tee der drei alten Damen (The Tea of the Three Old Ladies), because it was set in Switzerland, where I thought that I might end up staying, and included details of Basilidean Gnosticism, which I was learning at the time, along with other Gnostic systems and also Coptic to enable myself to read texts in the Nag Hammadi Library, imagining that I would become a Coptologist or scholar of Gnosticism ... but life led in other directions (though I still polish my Coptic skills).

I don't generally go for detective novels -- though I had already read and enjoyed Dorothy Sayers -- but I like a well-written, intelligent story, and Glauser introduced me to the Germanic variant on the genre (known, incidentally, as Krimis).

Now, many years later, I've just read Olen Steinhauer's first novel, The Bridge of Sighs, also a detective novel and also set in Europe ... but this time, Eastern Europe, in some anonymous Slavic nation recently scraped from under the German boot and now under the even heavier Russian boot. The year is 1948, and Emil Brod, a mere 22 years old, has started his new job in the homicide squad of the people's militia. For some sinister reason, none of his new colleagues will deign to exchange even a single word with him. They do, however, leave him the message with which the novel opens:
The greeting was in his desk, the center drawer: a piece of fishstained cardboard with a clumsily drawn stick figure. It had a circular head and an X for each eye. A fat knife separated the head from its stick body. The speech balloon said, We're on to you.
Well, that beginning caught my attention, and the novel kept my attention for the entire 278 pages, and I'm motivated to read Steinhauer's following novels, which -- so far as I can tell -- pick up the threads left dangling in this story.

And threads do dangle. The plot, while captivating, was not always entirely convincing -- Brod's remarkable survival despite his inebriated recklessness nagged at the back of my mind (where lurks the adage about God protecting fools and drunks) -- but Steinhauer's crisp language and ability to convey that air of decay lingering in Eastern capitals under Communism carried me through my occasional doubts.

The novel has some excellent moments in which Steinhauer evokes moods that one expects more from an older writer ... as in this scene from Brod's earlier, wartime escape working with an international crew of misfits fishing the North Sea:
They were all sweating from the heat of the boiler room next door, and there were too many of them, sprawled on the floor and the table, the wind hissing over the deck above them.

The Croat described the walk from his friend's palazzo to a canal that was overlooked, high up, by a covered bridge that connected two stone walls. The doomed, he told them. They crossed here on the way to the prisons. They call it the Bridge of Sighs. The Arab asked why. Because the prisoner had been convicted, and this was where he saw that, at the end of that short walk across the bridge, his life would be lived behind a stone wall. Behind iron bars. He would live and die in the dark.

A bleak silence fell over the cabin. No one spoke. Each man remembered his own bridge, but Emil, still so young, only knew he was missing the power of the moment, and said nothing.
Those of us who have reached a 'certain' age understand this moment implicitly, and I can't help but think of Marianne Faithfull singing the old Dubin-Warren piece from 1934, "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," which I think was played for me in Fribourg, Switzerland by my friend Tim Anderson around Christmas 1989, when Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu fell from power. We didn't cry for Ceauşescu, but the shattered dreams of all those wasted Eastern European decades saddened us:

I walk along the street of sorrow
The boulevard of broken dreams
Where gigolo and gigolette
Can take a kiss without regret
So they forget their broken dreams.

After a certain age, who doesn't have a few dreams broken...

But to return to Steinhauer and his novel ... the man could use an occasional proofreader, yet couldn't we all? I'm not a quibbler, but for future editions, I'd suggest altering Im Namendes Führers, on page 219, to read Im Namen des Führers.

Quibbles aside, the novel is worth reading whether you like detective stories or books with broader horizens -- and especially if you have a thing for the Eastern European cultural milieu in a time of decay...


At 8:32 PM, Blogger amba said...

Is that a translation, or was it written in English?

Having spent a lot of time in Romania in the '70s and '80s and absorbed the bleak, plangent sadness of that part of the world -- which is so richly soaked in the subtleties of hopelessness that it makes an American soul feel like a nightingale with its tongue cut out -- I would probably appreciate this book.

At 8:53 PM, Blogger Kevin Wignall said...

Olen is an American and the inspiration for the series started, I think, with his Fulbright year in Romania.

Jeffery, interesting review. I liked "Bridge" a lot - I see your point about the minor quibbles, as I'm sure would Olen himself, but I got the sense of someone really beginning to hit his stride in this debut. To my mind, he achieves his full maturity as a writer in the second book, The Confession.

As for the proof reading question, I'm afraid this is one area of publishing that has been cut back dramatically. The really good proof readers are still out there but they're few and far between.

At 8:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Amba, thanks for dropping in.

The book is in English. Olen, despite his German name, is American but now lives and writes in Budapest.

I think that we Americans are different from almost every other nation in the world. Our innate optimism that every problem can be solved and that everybody can emerge a winner is simply not shared by most of the world, where almost everything is perceived as a zero-sum game.

So ... we stumble into places like Iraq to help them solve their problems, then wonder why things get even worse.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:03 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kevin, I agree. As a first novel, Bridge of Sighs is quite impressive. It certainly held my interest and gives promise of more, better things, which is why I now want to read the entire series.

As for proofreading, it brings to mind Zeno's paradox. No matter how many times that I proofread a text, I can only approach but never achieve the perfectly corrected text.

There's always another error to remind me that I'm merely human ... as if I needed reminding.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:47 AM, Blogger Olen Steinhauer said...

Thanks for bringing up the book here, Jeffery, and I'm glad you enjoyed it. Your quibbles are no surprise, and as Kevin guesses, I agree completely. Fact of the matter is, that's the only book of mine I would gladly revise extensively (you should've heard my publisher's complaints when I sent them the "line edits" for the paperback, which were too expensive to make, they said).

Also like Kevin says, proofreaders these days (in fiction, at least) are not what they once were. I've learned to deal with these things on my own, and not bother blaming them for my mistakes.

Funny you bring up the "Namendes/Namen des" issue--if I remember right, I took it from a photo of the medal in question, which pushed the two words together. (But don't hold me to that--I can't find the thing now!)

Anyway, it's great to get your take on it. Thanks again. And of course you can use the photo!

Oh, PS: Don't expect to follow the further adventures of Brod in the next books--he becomes a secondary character.

At 8:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Olen, for visiting and commenting on my 'review' of your fine book.

On the "Namendes/Namen des" issue, I can imagine that the caption that you found did read as such (indeed, I actually wondered if you'd gotten your caption from an erroneous one), though Germans are usually painstakingly careful about details.

As for Brod, from looking at the Amazon synopses of your following books, I had the impression that his profile was diminished in favor of the mysterious Brano Sev.

I look forward to reading further ... maybe over the Christmas break since a tough semester starts this morning in about one hour.

Jeffery Hodges

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