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Book Review: The Confession by Olen Steinhauer

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The Confession is set in an unnamed East European country of the late 1950s at a moment of political thaw (the country itself is experiencing change in leadership and bouts of protest as political prisoners are being released from secret camps) and overall political crisis in other Communist countries: in neighboring Hungary workers are in open revolt, and in Poland troops are shooting at workers. The Confession is second of Steinhauer's award-nominated five-book sequence chronicle of the Cold War Eastern Europe, and, like The Bridge of Sighs, it is part mystery, part police procedural and part exploration of the effects of totalitarian political regimes of Eastern Europe. The style and atmosphere of The Confession instantly remind the reader of the work of Alan Furst, and, like Furst, Steinhauer creates a highly probable human story set in an exotic, troubled and dangerous world.

At the center of the story is the character of Comrade Inspector Ferenc Kolyeszar, a militia homicide detective and a proletarian writer suffering from writer's block — after his successful first book, Kolyeszar is unable to write anything new at all. But Kolyeszar is suffering from more than just a stoppage in the flow of talent. In fact, Kolyeszar is disintegrating, perhaps symbolically of the disintegrating countries of Eastern Europe under totalitarian rule.

Kolyeszar's relationship with his wife, Magda, is in tatters and there is indication that she always cheated on him with his best friend, Stefan. Professionally, he is having trouble focusing on his work. There is here, if nothing else, a profound malaise, a deep crisis of the psyche to which no antidote seems available. The frustration channels itself into self-destructive urges. During a raid on a group of protesters Kolyeszar ends up assaulting Kaminski, a consultant provided by Moscow, who is really a KGB man with a past.  Kaminski is a cleanup man who had been in the country before, helping state security round up potential troublemakers after the war. Kolyeszar's sins and offenses multiply, as he slouches toward the inevitable breakdown, to the point where neither his storied veteran past nor his status as a proletarian writer can protect him. It is only a matter of time before Kolyeszar's life as he knows it ends, and he is forced to write The Confession.

Steinhauer's plot does not begin with a bang, something which could engender a certain level of disappointment in a reader expecting something more red-blooded, but which, nevertheless, is in keeping with the style and the creative vision of the book. Like Furst, Steinhauer allows various threads of action, different mysteries, different cases, to slowly become entangled as he tracks the psyche of his protagonist as he travels along a difficult path on a psychological journey, here exploring the effects of a political system where the only way to be an artist is to be a shameless hack, because anyone who concerns himself with a modicum of artistic truth choses a path of eventual destruction. Despite its police procedural trappings, this story is really about artists and their plight in a system where one truth stifles all others. One of these mysteries centers around the suicide death of an alcoholic Josef Meneck, once a curator at National Museum, who ended up working at a bottling plant.

Kolyeszar's militia partner, Stefan, with whom Kolyeszar has a long history going all the way back to their childhood, refuses to let the case go as Kolyeszaar is apparently, and too easily, able to do, seeing in the suicide a more profound riddle. Why would a man decide to kill himself just when things seems to be getting better? The shops are fuller, prisoners are being released, and you can read anything you want. So why now, why end it all just when spring has finally sprung? The thaw itself provides the answer.

Kolyeszar doesn't care to know the answer to this riddle, but Stefan doggedly pursues the answer. The Meneck case is one of a number of other strands of narrative that Steinhauer deploys. Another case, apparently unrelated to the death of the curator, involves the disappearance of the wife of a high government official. As Kolyeszar pursues it, he discovers a rather creepy secret life of the political elite – the malaise of corrosion of spirit is not felt only by men like Kolyeszar. The only difference is that, in medicating the emptiness of life in a totalitarian state, the official becomes a crazed drug addict who torments his wife. Eventually, the strands of these two different threads become entangled as a conspiracy is revealed. True to form in this world, knowing a competing truth to the official version ruins lives.

Beside deeply human and fully realized characters, Steinhauer offers a dread permeated vision of reality in a 1950s Eastern European nation under a totalitarian regime that is exotic yet quite convincing, especially in how the effect of a runaway national security culture, where people disappear without warning, impact the characters. A malaise of fear and discontent poisons Kolyeszar's soul. National security in this gray, unhappy place consumes everything, becoming the justification for everything.

The Confession is a mesmerizing and richly atmospheric vision of a world and of lives in a place and a time where ideology stifles the human spirit.

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About A. Jurek

A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at: a.jurek@blogcritics.org