Eastern Europe in the late ’60s: a dismal time, a dreary thriller.
Major Brano Sev is a State Security Officer in the People's Militia of a down-trodden, never-named USSR satellite. Actually, he's a spy, a very good spy. Clever, courageous, durable: coping with corporal punishment unstintingly administered is one of his noteworthy attributes. In addition, he likes to think of himself as unswervingly loyal to the socialist idea, but in this he's about to be severely tested. As the story opens, Brano is in Vienna on a secret assignment—a secret to him, too, it turns out, since a whack on the head has induced temporary amnesia. At about the time he fully recovers his memory, Brano discovers what it means to be an apparatchik in a political party paralyzed by paranoia, a party with a single item on its agenda: survival. After being framed and denounced by an ambitious colleague, he’s stripped of his rank and consigned to scut work (“the third man down the assembly line”) at a factory making agricultural machinery. Though ever stoical, Brano acknowledges relief when Comrade Colonel Laszlo Cerny appears with an assignment that could lead to rehabilitation. He’s to go to Bóbrka, his hometown, to check out the dubious behavior of one Jan Seroka, a fellow native son. On the face of it, the mission seems straightforward enough, but Brano—loyalty now leavened by recent experience—suspects that treachery has become reflexive among his Politburo peers. He’s right, and once again he’s framed, this time for murder. Other betrayals follow until at length Brano is forced to conclude that his most trusted friends are indistinguishable from his bitterest enemies.
Steinhauer, who’s done excellent work in two prior suspensers (The Confession, 2004, etc.), misses here: this time out, he confronts the reader with the formidable task of empathizing with an essentially colorless protagonist.