Trilby's Reviews > The Confession

The Confession by Olen Steinhauer
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's review
May 26, 08

bookshelves: detective-story, historical-fiction, mystery, noir, thriller
Read in May, 2008

The cover design drew my attention: a black-and-white photo of a 1950's steam locomotive in a dreary station. That picture is an accurate metaphor for the "confession" of Ferenc K, a hair-raising tale of brutality, oppression,and revenge, set in an unnamed Soviet bloc country (possibly modeled on Bulgaria?)in the late 1950s.

Steinhauer,an American, obviously has lived in Eastern Europe long enough to get a good sense of the culture and history. The most powerful scenes are set in the gritty police station where the narrator works, in a decaying, abandoned aristocrat's villa, in a rural "work camp," and in the Kolyesczar family's soulless walkup apartment(ubiquitous in the CCCP). Smoke fills every scene, as the characters, at work or at home, puff away constantly, attempting to medicate themselves with nicotine and alcohol. No one knows whom to trust in this place where spouses turn in their mates to the the KGB, sending them off to "camp" and near-certain death.

I had almost forgotten how wretched life was for the millions of ordinary people who lived through many decades of tyranny from Soviet Russia. (And many apparently still do, although now the tyrants no longer use communism as an excuse.)

One aspect of this thriller bothered me. Steinhauer makes this a version of the age-worn epistolary novel; this book is supposed to be FK's written confession. Well, that ruse falls apart immediately when you come across narrative that could never be part of an actual "confession". An extension of this device is the clunky coda added by another narrator circa 1978, which lets us know what happened to FK in the intervening years. Hey, we don't want to know. Just let the chilling ending stand alone.

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