Sunday, January 13, 2008

The need for good proofreaders...

36 Yalta Boulevard
C-F 26-1-12-20-1 2-15-21-12-5-22-1-18-4
(Image from

I'm still reading Olen Steinhauer's Cold War novel 36 Yalta Boulevard, whose 'hero', a character named Brano Sev, is a spy who has fallen from grace with his superiors, the apparatchiks of an unnamed Eastern European communist country aligned with the Soviet Union but pursuing a semi-autonomous path, and who is working to redeem himself with his superiors by faithfully following what he believes to be their intentions for his life in Viennese exile from the socialist paradise.

This could almost be a novel about religion.

Speaking of which, Brano Sev reads the Viennese newspaper Kurier every day, his eye ever alert for the revelation of a message. One day, sitting with his possibly apparatchick girlfriend Dijana Franković at breakfast in her apartment, he receives what he has been waiting for while reading the personal ads:

[H]e reopened the personals. As he did every day, he scanned them quickly, but this time one caught his eye.

Franz F, "Gedicht-1"

Franz F, "Poem-1":

Lieb + Ebenbild sterben in Kampfgas.
Warte ich auf Lawinen? Schlau . . . hab dich!
Acht Jahre! OO Leute, O Reich!

Love + image die in War-gas.
Do I wait for avalanches? Sly . . . gotcha!
Eight years! OO people, O empire.
He didn't understand the poem, and that made sense. This was written not for a surface meaning but for a hidden one, the small grammatical blunder of the first line -- the in instead of im -- helping draw his attention. And the code was simple. Brano looked at the date on the newspaper -- 11 April 1967. 11-4-1967. Poem, minus one. 11-4-1966, or 1-1-4-1-9-6-6.

"You are finding a lover?"

Brano could feel himself reddening. "No," he said. "Just reading poetry."

She smiled, rocking her head as she returned to the world's headlines. "So my Brani like poetry . . ."

Brano got up after a while and, on her bedside table, found a worn pencil. He took it, with the newspaper, to the toliet, closed the door, and began underlining letters based on the code 1-1-4-1-9-6-6 [marked here in bold italics].
Lieb + Ebenbild sterben in Kampfgas.
Warte ich auf Lawinen? Schlau . . . hab dich!
Acht Jahre! OO Leute, O Reich!

The first part made sense: a meeting place -- Liebengaste WC; the batroom of the Liebengaste, a restaurant north of Mariahilfer, on Neubaugasse. But the rest -- ABDACOO -- did not. Which meant they were numbers. He transformed the letters into numbers, based simply on their alphabetic order, and found 1241300. A date and time -- 12 April, 13:00. (Steinhauer, 36 Yalta Boulevard, 197-198)

At this point in my reading (after first noting that "empire" ought to be followed by an exclamation mark), I stopped, puzzled. Anyone who knows me well enough (and I hope that nobody does) will understand my perplexity whenever faced by puzzles of this sort. Simply put, I'm not very good at solving them, not even those that have been solved for me.

I tried to follow the simple code. I could see that "1-1" meant "Li," but shouldn't "4-1" mean "be" rather than "Eb"? Eventually, I realized that I probably ought to be counting the "+," and that worked -- once I learned to ignore punctuation -- until I reached the first "O," which was only the eighth rather than the ninth letter after the "c" of "Acht." Was I supposed to count the exclamation mark for the "O" to be the ninth letter? An exlamation mark is not a letter, however, and I hadn't been counting punctuation before. Even if I did count punctuation now to reach the "O" after "Jahre!" in nine places, the third "O," the one following "Leute," would be seven letters further instead of six. Finally, it clicked. There was a typo. In the "OO" before "Leute," the second "O" should have been underlined, for it was nine letters after the "c" of "Acht" and six letters before the third "O," i.e., the "O" after "Leute."

But I was still puzzled.

If the letters "ABDACOO" were supposed to be a code for numbers based simply on their alphabetic order, then "ABDAC" would be "12413," but "OO" should be "1515" instead of "00."

I resolved my puzzlement by assuming that Steinhauer, like Homer, sometimes "nodded" and that in a moment of inattention read his letters "OO" (oh oh) as the numbers "00" (zero zero). In other words, he forgot that these were supposed to be in code and read them directly.

Fortunately, Brano Sev made the same error and thus made his rendevous without mishap...

UPDATE: After discussion with Olen Steinhauer (see comments), I realize that I misread "ABDACOO" as a sequence of letters, for I now perceive that the final two items in the sequence were numbers and that the crucial sentence was meant to be read as "He transformed the letters [ABDAC] into numbers." Everything was doubtless clear for all but the slow-witted folks like myself...

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At 10:16 PM, Blogger Olen Steinhauer said...

Thanks for reading so closely...and, of course, for taking on the project of reading all of them!

As you probably suspect, the "+" was used because I needed that extra letter count, and just assumed that it was part of Brano's code that punctuation itself would be ignored. However the "O" and "OO" are in the original typescript zeroes, not letters--I don't have the book in front of me so I don't know what the final version used, or if, in fact, one would be able to tell the difference between an o and a zero with the font they're using.

As for the underlining of the first "0" in "00" you're plainly right--that's a typo, and I don't know if it was mine or something that cropped up in page proofs.

It's funny how the proofreading process goes. Obviously, I go over the thing many times, but so does my editor, and the proofreader they hire (not an in-house proofer). I'm usually very pleased with everyone's work--while they sometimes miss this sort of thing, they often help me iron out other inconsistencies like changed character names, as well as smoothing certain phrases or catching various awkward word choices. It's always great to get another set of eyes that see what you don't.

Given the abysmal sales of the book, you're the first person to actually point out the typo, so thanks! In case it ever goes into another printing, this'll be added to the notes.

At 10:35 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

I see you mind works well with ciphers as it does with poetry.

At 4:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Olen, you're welcome, but thank you for writing the series. I'm very much enjoying the novels -- as you may have noticed if you read the blog entry prior to this one.

I'll have a lot of questions to pose after I've finished the lot of the novels, though I can imagine that your own life is so busy these days that you'll have little time for such queries.

I'm surprised to hear of the abysmal sales for this book. Perhaps those will pick up after Hollywood discovers you...

I suppose that I have a talent for proofreading. I read very closely and slowly because I don't assimilate information quickly, but that allows me to notice small misprints, typos, mistakes, and so on.

I've also been correcting students' papers for 20 years and have recently edited a book for Yonsei Press. So . . . I do this sort of thing habitually.

But I do also make mistakes...

I've re-read the passage, and I admit that you're right. The "00" in the code sequence does look like two zeros (rather than the two letters "OO"), which would resolve that issue, so let me correct my error but explain my puzzlement at Sev's reasoning on page 198:

"The first part made sense: a meeting place -- Liebengaste WC; the bathroom of the Liebengaste, a restaurant north of Mariahilfer, on Neubaugasse. But the rest -- ABDAC00 -- did not. Which meant they were numbers. He transformed the letters into numbers, based simply on their alphabetic order, and found 1241300."

Here's what puzzled me: "He transformed the letters into numbers." I read that as meaning that the entire sequence ABDAC00 was letters, but I now see where I went wrong in my reading. You meant it to be read as "He transformed the letters [ABDAC] into numbers."

Now, your meaning is quite obvious, and most readers will probably see that "00" is two zeros (rather than two letters), but I wonder if the residual ambiguity for slow-witted readers such as myself could be gracefully avoided by writing "He transformed the letters ABDAC into numbers."

I would, however, not recommend any change at this point, for now that I see what you mean, there's nothing to correct.

Let me redeem myself, however, by noting a typo on page 3:

"Sie sind Nicht tot, oder?"

The word "Nicht" is an adverb, not a noun, so it should not be capitalized. I assume that this was a typo (unless it was confused with the noun "Nichts"). Anyway, you'll probably want to change it to this:

"Sie sind nicht tot, oder?"

Unless, of course, the Austrian policeman was speaking in capitals, as the Queen of England once did with me...

Anyway, I'll update my blog entry.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:06 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, I wish that my mind did work well with codes, ciphers, puzzles, and so on, but as you see from my exchange with Olen, my mind didn't work very well at all this time.

But thanks for putting a misplaced trust in my ability...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:25 AM, Blogger Olen Steinhauer said...

Consider yourself redeemed--though the fact that such a childish German 101 error appeared on the first page is kind of embarrassing...though it does sound familiar. I think I caught it before and asked them to fix it next time around.

To be honest, though, once a book is published I stay away from it if at all possible. Typos are one thing, but catching all the bad sentences and questionable story decisions it's too late to change is just agonizing.

At 5:40 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Olen, I can imagine the agony, for even with scholarly articles that I've published, I cringe at "catching all the bad sentences" that I myself have composed.

At least with this blog, I can correct things...

Jeffery Hodges

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