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36 Yalta Boulevard [NOOK Book]

Overview


Olen Steinhauer's acclaimed first two novels, The Bridge of Sighs and The Confession, have garnered thus far an Edgar nomination, an Anthony nomination, a Macavity nomination, a Historical Dagger nomination, and five starred reviews. Now he takes this superb literary series set in a nameless Eastern European country into the 1960s.

State Security Officer Brano Sev is the secretive member of the homicide department of the capital's people's ...
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36 Yalta Boulevard

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Overview


Olen Steinhauer's acclaimed first two novels, The Bridge of Sighs and The Confession, have garnered thus far an Edgar nomination, an Anthony nomination, a Macavity nomination, a Historical Dagger nomination, and five starred reviews. Now he takes this superb literary series set in a nameless Eastern European country into the 1960s.

State Security Officer Brano Sev is the secretive member of the homicide department of the capital's people's militia. No one else quite trusts him, but it is part of his job to do what the authorities ask, no matter what. So when he gets an order to travel to the village of his birth in order to interrogate a potential defector, he goes. When a man turns up dead shortly after he arrives, and Brano is framed for the murder, he assumes this is part of the plan and allows it to run its course. But when the plan leads him into exile in Vienna, he finally begins to ask questions.
In fact, in The Man from Yalta Boulevard, a tour-de-force political thriller from Olen Steinhauer, Comrade Brano Sev learns that loyalty to the cause might be the biggest crime of all.


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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Did Brano Sev, an agent of an unnamed Eastern European country, kill Bertrand Richter in Vienna in the 1960s? Or was he set up by his superiors at the Ministry of State Security, the headquarters of his service located at the address that gives Edgar-finalist Steinhauer's uneven third novel its title? And why does he have a slip of paper with the name Dijana Frankovic on it when he wakes up, bewildered, in a Vienna park? Even Sev doesn't know-amnesia!-but the consequences are all too clear: he's demoted to a dead-end factory job, "fitting electrical wires into gauges so that the machines of socialist agriculture would never fail." (The author ably captures socialist rhetoric.) Sev gets a chance at redemption, and the opportunity to find out what really happened, when the ministry sends him home, to the provincial town of B brka, to investigate a possible double agent, Jan Soroka. While the details of life behind the Iron Curtain at the height of the Cold War ring true, some readers may find the flawed Sev too undeveloped a character to care about his fate. The real story involves Sev's father, who left the country under suspicion of collaboration after WWII, but the plot's Byzantine complexity, more confusing than intriguing, clouds that classic father-son drama. Agent, Matt Williams at the Gernert Company. Author tour. (June 13) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
At the height of the Cold War in 1966, things have gone badly for Brano Sev, a major in the Ministry of State Security in an Eastern Bloc country. Sent to Vienna to plug a leak, Sev is accused of sabotaging the mission and soon finds himself back home working in a factory, lucky to have avoided prison. Five months later, his former boss, Col. Laszlo Cerny, shows up with an offer: check out a defector who has returned to B brka, an isolated village north of the capital, where Sev was born and still has family, and he may earn reinstatement. Thus begins a quest for the truth behind a series of baffling events on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Aware that he is being used but unable to figure out for what purpose, Sev finds that not only is his fate at stake but also that of his country. Steinhauer (The Confession) is a master at entangling a compelling protagonist in a spellbinding web where each broken thread entraps the character (and the reader) in yet another mystery. This is an imaginative, brilliantly plotted espionage thriller, with finely detailed settings and a protagonist of marvelous complexity. Highly recommended. [See Mystery Prepub, LJ 2/1/05.]-Ronnie H. Terpening, Univ. of Arizona, Tucson Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 B-brka, 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 twoprior 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. Author tour
From the Publisher
"Steinhauer is a master at entangling a compelling protagonist in a spellbinding web where each broken thread entraps the character (and the reader) in yet another mystery. This is an imaginative, brilliantly plotted espionage thriller, with finely detailed settings and a protagonist of marvelous complexity. Highly recommended."—Library Journal (starred review)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429940139
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 6/1/2005
  • Series: Eastern Europe Thrillers , #3
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 138,650
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Olen Steinhauer

Olen Steinhauer was inspired to write his Eastern European series while on a Fullbright Fellowship in Romania. Raised in Texas, he lives in Budapest, Hungary.

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Read an Excerpt

8 FEBRUARY 1967, WEDNESDAY

He left the Capital that morning, and at ten stopped in Uzhorod to fill his petrol, then continued up into the mountains, alert to each curve hidden behind clusters of snow-sprinkled pines. A small suitcase and briefcase shivered on the passenger seat.

His name was Brano Oleksy Sev. He had reached his fiftieth year the previous month with fewer scars than he deserved, and owned the same white Trabant P50 he had bought ten years before. He had replaced so many internal parts that likely nothing inside it had come with the original car. Even the steering wheel had been replaced in 1961 (31 October, the same day Stalin’s sarcophagus was removed from its Red Square mausoleum), after he had taken a particularly sharp turn while trailing a suspect and found it sitting in his lap.

In Vranov he took lunch at the empty restaurant he knew from his last visit three years before, because this stop never changed. The waitress, a large woman with a cleft lip, frowned a lot at him. Then she leaned against the edge of the table, a faint odor of sweat misting off her cheeks, and asked if he was sure he didn’t want a drink with that. “We’ve got the best brandy in the region.”

Brano shook his head and watched her return, frowning, to the kitchen, then opened his briefcase and took out the case file with cold fingers.

Until last August, Brano had been a major in the Ministry for State Security, located on Yalta Boulevard, number 36. But for the last five months he had been a comrade-worker at the eternally noisy Pidkora People’s Factory, the third man down the assembly line, fitting electrical wires into gauges so that the machines of socialist agriculture would never fail. Then, yesterday, he felt a tap on his shoulder. His alcoholic foreman stood behind him.

Someone to see you, Sev! In my office!

Brano followed him through the jungle of machinery to the glassed-in box in the center of the factory floor. Behind the cluttered desk, holding a newspaper and smiling, sat the Comrade Colonel, Laszlo Cerny, wiping his unkempt mustache.

The foreman closed the door as he left, muffling the sound of machines.

Brano.

Comrade Colonel.

Sit down, said the colonel, tapping the newspaper on the desk. Then he held up the paper, which was Austrian. Kurier. He said, You ever meet this guy?

Who?

Filip Lutz.

Brano said he hadn’t, then began to understand. This was the way meetings at Yalta Boulevard had always begun, with pleasantries and diversions. The Comrade Colonel even read out portions of that expatriate’s slanders about the “acts of barbarity” committed by the Ministry for State Security. The lies he tells. Those Austrians will believe anything. Say, Brano, I don’t suppose you’d be interested in leaving this factory, would you?

The waitress delivered his coffee with an arched brow. “You’re up here for work?”

Brano closed the file. “How do you know I’m not from here?”

“Your accent. And your car.” She nodded at the mud-grayed window. “Those plates are from the Capital.”

“That’s very good.”

“So?”

“Yes?”

“Are you here on business?”

“You’re very curious.”

“My husband says it’ll get me into trouble one day.”

“Visiting family,” he said. “In Bóbrka.”

“Bóbrka?” She crossed her arms over her chest and raised the mottled side of her lip. “From the Capital to Bóbrka. That’ll be a shock.”

“It certainly will be.”

He opened the file again as she walked away, and he looked at the top photograph, of a handsome man’s face—wide, with faint features.

This was the reason for interrupting his day’s work—Jan Soroka. Five and a half months ago, in August, this petroleum specialist had made it out of the East, to Vienna. Colonel Cerny shrugged. Through Hungary, we suspect. Their border is full of holes. Assumedly for asylum, Soroka twice visited the American embassy, then remained in Vienna for the following three months. In November, he reentered the American embassy and did not emerge again.

Well, we lost track of him at least. It happens. Just an oil rigger. Sometimes people slip through your fingers. But listen to this.

Ten days ago, Soroka had reappeared, magically, in Bóbrka—his hometown, and Brano’s.

Brano had left Bóbrka in 1941, so Jan Soroka was unfamiliar, as was his wife, Lia, whose puffy lips in her Galicia Textile Works identification photo made her look as if she’d just been hit. There were no photographs of their seven-year-old son, Petre.

And he hasn’t been arrested? Brano asked.

Colonel Cerny shook his head. He won’t be, not yet, because that’s what he must be expecting. His wife and son have joined him there. It’s the “why” we’re after. And who would be best equipped to go in and work on him?

Does this mean that I—

Cerny held up a finger. Temporary and unofficial reinstatement, Brano. These might come in handy. He reached in his pocket and handed over Brano’s old internal passport, marked with the crest of the Ministry: a hawk with folded wings, its head turned aside. The Lieutenant General wasn’t in favor of it, but I used my influence. And if you distinguish yourself, then there’s a chance—

“That your wife?” the waitress asked.

Brano closed the file. “Wife?”

“She’s pretty.”

“Thank you.”

Among the papers he found a brief typed summary of the file’s contents. Soroka had been born in 1934 in Sanok, to Wladislaw and Soft Soroka, farmers. His childhood was not mentioned, nor his parents’ 1947 transfer to the Bóbrka Petroleum Works, though it was noted that in 1950, at sixteen, Jan was part of a Red Pioneer trip to the Capital to shake hands with General Secretary Mihai and see the sights. When he was twenty-three, Jan applied for and received permission to move to the Capital, where he advised the Central Gas Industry Committee as part of the industrial reform program Mihai had implemented the year before, in 1956, some months before his death. Before he disappeared, Soroka attended a conference in the spa town of Gyula on “the future of power in the socialist neighborhood,” attended by scientists from all over the Empire, specialists in gas, petroleum, and nuclear energy. But a week after it ended, his wife, Lia, filed a missing person’s report—Jan had never returned home. Militia Lieutenant Emil Brod investigated it—but without success. A line toward the end of the summary said, “EXTERNAL ACTIVITIES: See attached.”

The Vienna report’s five pages speculated on Soroka’s date of entry into Austria—21 August, six days after Brano had left—and listed various places he had visited. The list was not exceptional. There were the regular sights—the Stephansdom, the MAK, the Schönbrunn Palace—and bars where one might run into one’s own countrymen, the most well known being the Carp, on Sterngasse. Then, on 25 August, a Thursday, he first entered the American embassy. During that five-hour visit, his hotel room was searched, but nothing of interest was found. Soroka returned to the embassy the next day, for only an hour. He then went to the Carp and got drunk.

On the following Monday, he appeared for the first time at the Raiffeisen-bank and, as far as the agents could discern from their vantage on the other side of the lobby, opened an account. This was never properly verified.

The report became sporadic after that, skimming over the following three months with summaries. Soroka began eating in specific restaurants and going to a limited number of bars—the Carp most often—and made brief friendships before dropping out of touch. It was the life of a dissatisfied exile. A couple of these acquaintances were agents who tried to get the story out of him, but short of a full interrogation there was no way to learn more. He was not considered important enough to abduct—which, the report speculated, was probably a mistake, because on 18 November he returned to the American embassy and did not emerge again.

Brano said, Who’s the Vienna rezident now?

Cerny pressed his lips together. Josef Lochert.

He—But Brano didn’t finish the sentence. After his expulsion from the Ministry and five months standing beside an automated belt, this was, finally, something. So where does Soroka say he’s been all this time?

The Comrade Colonel grunted his delight. You’ll like this. He says he’s been with a mistress in Szuha—a small village near the Ukrainian border. Guess her name.

I don’t know.

Dijana Frankovi?.

Brano flinched.

Yes, said Cerny. I don’t know what the Americans are up to. They know we’re aware Soroka was in Vienna, but they’re willing to send him in with a terrible cover. We want to know what’s going on.

We?

Myself, and the Comrade Lieutenant General.

I see.

Don’t misjudge him, said Cerny. What he did to you was what he thought he had to do.

He wanted me in prison.

Colonel Cerny shook the newspaper at him. Well, when Josef Lochert reported that you’d attacked him and tried to sabotage the operation . . . what did you expect him to think?

Thank you again, by the way, said Brano. For keeping me out of prison.

You know I’d do much more for you. He stood up and looked through the glass at the factory that reached beyond his line of sight. Maybe this isn’t much better. He stuck out a hand, and Brano took it. So? Have I put something bright into an otherwise dull day?

You’ve put something bright into an otherwise dull life.

Cerny tossed him the Kurier. Enjoy the read. That stuff is no good for my bladder.

Brano accepted the gift of a small roll from his waitress and drove through the mountains to the other side, passing Turka and then moving farther north beyond the Carpathian hills. Giraltovce and Svidník glided past, and after dark he reached Dukla. There was a new billboard outside town, briefly lit by his headlights: General Secretary Tomiak Pankov, bald head shining above a blue suit, stood smiling, arms out, while around him a ring of twenty children danced. Beneath: THE SOCIALIST WORLD IS THE WORLD OF PEACE.

With children dancing in his head, Brano drove north into the forest.

He could not see the drilling machinery in the dark, but he knew it was there, among the pines. As he emerged into the sparse, rolling terrain that led to the village, he had an overwhelming urge to turn back. A couple of houses appeared on the left—new, unfamiliar homes—but the graveyard on the right brought on the subtle push of nostalgia he’d been waiting for. He took a left at the crossroad and drove into the center of Bóbrka.

It seemed that everything was already known to him in this town of less than four hundred; everything was tactile. The lit windows with their rough lace curtains, the tire-mangled road, the sharp grass springing up in his headlights, the fogged windows of the village’s one bar and the old man shivering outside in the cold with a beer in his hand, watching Brano’s Trabant roll past. Otherwise, the village was deserted. The bus stop was dark, though the yellow church with its statue of the Virgin Mary was lit by a floodlight. He followed the right-hand bend in the road, passing the small state store his mother ran, continuing without looking at the prim homes leading up to hers.

Brano was genuinely surprised to see the house as it had always been, small and remote from the road. After the dynamism of the Capital, he was in a place that lived as if nothing had changed in the last fifty years.

He parked in the gravel, took out his suitcase and briefcase, and paused at the gate. He took breaths of cold air until the red tint in his cheeks began to fade.

The kitchen light glowed from around the side of the house, so he walked through shrubs to the kitchen door. Whitewashed by the thin lace curtain, she was still heavy, her thick elbows on the table, staring at the playing cards laid out before her. She jumped at his knock.

As Iwona Sev approached the door she squinted, and he leaned close to the glass to help her out. Then her head slid back, eyes filling with light before the smile came. She pulled the door open and shouted, “Brani!”

He kissed her, then came into the kitchen, which had also never heard of progress. Wood-burning stove, gas lamp, a pail of fat in the corner. She held his face by the chin and turned it in the light. “You’re thin, thin. Are you all right? Is everything okay?”

He noticed that on her forehead, between her eyes, was a smear of soot. He kissed her cheeks again. “I’m just taking a vacation. It’s all right to stay here?”

“How can you even ask? It’s not every day I have my son here. Or every year, for that matter.” She tried to take his suitcase, but he wouldn’t let her. “Get those to your room and I’ll make something to eat. You must be hungry.”

He tilted his head from side to side.

“Of course you are. I’ll heat some soup.”

“You’ve got a spot,” he said, touching his own forehead.

She opened her mouth, blushing. “Oh yes, yes.” She wiped the spot with a thumb and looked at her dirty print. “If I had an electric stove, I’d be a lot cleaner.”

It could not really be called “his” room anymore. All personal effects—the toy oxcart with the broken wheel, the rotary board game, and even the set of French metal skiers with little metal skis and sleds—had been removed long ago, and his younger sister, Klara, had taken her possessions to her own home on the outskirts of Bóbrka. A group of framed photographs hung on the wall in a loose pastiche of half-forgotten faces. Uncles and distant cousins who were killed in the war, and their wives, who had remarried or stuck out the following years in solitude. A group shot of his mother’s family from the ’teens, faces serious, as befitted the weight of such a sitting. Brano was also there, at two, and at six years old, with curls that made him look uncomfortably like a girl; Klara as a nine-year-old had the same intense features she had carried into adulthood. In the center, a larger portrait of his father—his Tati—stood sentry over the others. It had been taken during the war, a young man’s face with too many worry lines sprouting from his eyes. His mouth was open, revealing the chipped front tooth Brano always imagined when he tried to remember the face of Andrezej Fedor Sev.

He sat on the edge of the bed, gazing at that tooth. The man was probably dead now, one tiny fraction of the endless stream of refugees who made their way west after the war. But this man had been ordered to leave, by his son, on a frigid October night.

Brano wiped his palms dry on his knees.

It was not his room anymore. It had become a home for guests. A guest room, and he was a guest. He put the suitcase into the wardrobe.

Her forehead was clean and the cards cleared away. She was heating pork stew in an iron pot and toasting bread. He asked her about the store. “Well, you know. Eugen is a good boy, but I don’t need him. I could do all the work myself. It’s a small place. But the State wants two employees, and who am I to argue?”

“You could bring it up at a council meeting.”

“Do you think that would help?”

“The State can’t know things unless it’s told.”

She hummed beneath her breath and stirred the fragrant soup. She added a spoonful of fat from the pail and let it cook a little more before ladling it into a bowl and collecting the toast. She poured him a glass of brandy and seemed pleased just to watch him eat.

He told her a few necessary details about the Pidkora factory and spent more time describing new construction in the Capital and everything that was changing. “The metro was a fantastic success.”

“That’s a good thing,” she said.

“When you travel you see the entire cross-section of the city—Gypsies and workers and university professors riding side by side.”

“And Politburo men?”

“Mother.”

“I’m only asking.”

He finished eating and sipped the warm brandy. She poured herself one and refilled his.

“And what about your personal life, Brani? Do you have friends? Any women you’d like your mother to meet?”

He hesitated. “No, no women.”

“You’re not so young anymore.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“And when you reach a certain age you’ll kick yourself for not having a wife.”

“It’s possible.”

“Maybe we can find you a nice girl around here.”

“No. Mother, don’t try that.”

“If you’re not going to be sensible, then I’ll have to be sensible for you.”

“Mother.”

She finished her glass. “What, son-of-mine?”

“I’m quite happy with my life.”

“Nonsense. No one is happy with their life. Your Tati used to say that all the time, and he knew what he was talking about.”

He stared at his drink until she let the subject go. She went on to other matters, and by eleven had told him all about the happenings in Bóbrka. Alina Winieckim and Gerik Gargas had died in the last six months, the first of encephalitis, the other in a gory drilling accident. Alina’s husband, Lubomir, got a permit to move to the Capital—“Did you hear from him? I gave him your phone number.” Brano hadn’t. “Always unsociable, Lubomir. Always . . .” She twisted an index finger against her temple to signify insanity, then told him that the entire Ulanowicz clan had moved to Uzhorod.

Brano rubbed his eyes.

But there was good news as well, she told him. Wincet and Kalena Szybalski had gotten married after only a three-week courtship (though Kalena’s soon-swelling belly made the reason clear enough). Also married were Piotr and Jolanta, and Augustyn and Olesia. “There’s love in the air,” she said. “Maybe you’ll smell it, too.” Krystyna Knippelberg was seven months pregnant with her sixth. “You should see how ecstatic she is. But who wants six children? All she really wants is one of those Motherhood Medals, it’s obvious.”

“Is that so bad?”

“It’s bad when you can’t feed the five children you’ve got. Krystyna will have to send one off to the orphanage, mark my words.”

The most spectacular news, however, of Jan Soroka’s mysterious appearance did not cross her lips.

“And what about my sister?”

She yawned into the back of her hand, then took the bottle to refill his glass, stopping when she saw it hadn’t been touched. “Klara is doing well. Oh, very well. She and Lucjan are as happy as you can imagine. No children, though I talk to her.” She drank her brandy and put her chin in her hand. “Maybe Lucjan is seedless. You can’t blame a man for that, but I would like some grandchildren before I’m dead. Klara’s not my only child, though.”

“Maybe.”

“You see?” she said as she got up. “It’s not just in the Capital that interesting things happen.”

She kissed him good night and left the brandy out, but he didn’t drink any more. He sipped tap water and read Colonel Cerny’s copy of Kurier. In a long column called “An Eye into the Other Side,” Filip Lutz told of his own interrogation in 1961, a year before he escaped through Prague to the West. He said that the brutal treatment he received at the hands of the Ministry for State Security was the sure sign of a paranoiac society in the advanced stages of collapse. He gave the regime three years at most.

When the words began to blur, he went to the bedroom, undressed and folded his clothes, then climbed into the cold bed.

Brano was not the kind of man who liked to recall his youth, preferring to forget that time of zbrka—Dijana Frankovi?’s word for “the confusion of too many thing.” Before and during the war, he had stumbled through the stages leading to adulthood with his loud friend, Marek. The road to adulthood had been so clumsy and hesitant that even at the end of that life he was still unsure what to call himself. But after sending away his father, the zbrka dissipated. He was Brano Oleksy Sev, first a private, and then a sergeant, a captain, a lieutenant, a major. Then a factory worker. Now, he was neither an officer nor a worker but something undefined, lying in this cold room in the north of the country, where he always found the childhood zbrka waiting patiently for him.

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Table of Contents

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First Chapter

36 Yalta Boulevard


By Olen Steinhauer

Minotaur Books

Copyright © 2006 Olen Steinhauer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780312332037

8 FEBRUARY 1967, WEDNESDAY

He left the Capital that morning, and at ten stopped in Uzhorod to fill his petrol, then continued up into the mountains, alert to each curve hidden behind clusters of snow-sprinkled pines. A small suitcase and briefcase shivered on the passenger seat.
His name was Brano Oleksy Sev. He had reached his fiftieth year the previous month with fewer scars than he deserved, and owned the same white Trabant P50 he had bought ten years before. He had replaced so many internal parts that likely nothing inside it had come with the original car. Even the steering wheel had been replaced in 1961 (31 October, the same day Stalin’s sarcophagus was removed from its Red Square mausoleum), after he had taken a particularly sharp turn while trailing a suspect and found it sitting in his lap.
In Vranov he took lunch at the empty restaurant he knew from his last visit three years before, because this stop never changed. The waitress, a large woman with a cleft lip, frowned a lot at him. Then she leaned against the edge of the table, a faint odor of sweat misting off her cheeks, and asked if he was sure he didn’t want a drink with that. “We’ve got the best brandy in the region.”
Brano shook his head and watched her return, frowning, to the kitchen, then opened his briefcase and took out the case file with cold fingers.
Until last August, Brano had been a major in the Ministry for State Security, located on Yalta Boulevard, number 36. But for the last five months he had been a comrade-worker at the eternally noisy Pidkora People’s Factory, the third man down the assembly line, fitting electrical wires into gauges so that the machines of socialist agriculture would never fail. Then, yesterday, he felt a tap on his shoulder. His alcoholic foreman stood behind him.
Someone to see you, Sev! In my office!
Brano followed him through the jungle of machinery to the glassed-in box in the center of the factory floor. Behind the cluttered desk, holding a newspaper and smiling, sat the Comrade Colonel, Laszlo Cerny, wiping his unkempt mustache.
The foreman closed the door as he left, muffling the sound of machines.
Brano.
Comrade Colonel.
Sit down, said the colonel, tapping the newspaper on the desk. Then he held up the paper, which was Austrian. Kurier. He said, You ever meet this guy?
Who?
Filip Lutz.
Brano said he hadn’t, then began to understand. This was the way meetings at Yalta Boulevard had always begun, with pleasantries and diversions. The Comrade Colonel even read out portions of that expatriate’s slanders about the “acts of barbarity” committed by the Ministry for State Security. The lies he tells. Those Austrians will believe anything. Say, Brano, I don’t suppose you’d be interested in leaving this factory, would you?
The waitress delivered his coffee with an arched brow. “You’re up here for work?”
Brano closed the file. “How do you know I’m not from here?”
“Your accent. And your car.” She nodded at the mud-grayed window. “Those plates are from the Capital.”
“That’s very good.”
“So?”
“Yes?”
“Are you here on business?”
“You’re very curious.”
“My husband says it’ll get me into trouble one day.”
“Visiting family,” he said. “In Bóbrka.”
“Bóbrka?” She crossed her arms over her chest and raised the mottled side of her lip. “From the Capital to Bóbrka. That’ll be a shock.”
“It certainly will be.”
He opened the file again as she walked away, and he looked at the top photograph, of a handsome man’s face—wide, with faint features.
This was the reason for interrupting his day’s work—Jan Soroka. Five and a half months ago, in August, this petroleum specialist had made it out of the East, to Vienna. Colonel Cerny shrugged. Through Hungary, we suspect. Their border is full of holes. Assumedly for asylum, Soroka twice visited the American embassy, then remained in Vienna for the following three months. In November, he reentered the American embassy and did not emerge again.
Well, we lost track of him at least. It happens. Just an oil rigger. Sometimes people slip through your fingers. But listen to this.
Ten days ago, Soroka had reappeared, magically, in Bóbrka—his hometown, and Brano’s.
Brano had left Bóbrka in 1941, so Jan Soroka was unfamiliar, as was his wife, Lia, whose puffy lips in her Galicia Textile Works identification photo made her look as if she’d just been hit. There were no photographs of their seven-year-old son, Petre.
And he hasn’t been arrested? Brano asked.
Colonel Cerny shook his head. He won’t be, not yet, because that’s what he must be expecting. His wife and son have joined him there. It’s the “why” we’re after. And who would be best equipped to go in and work on him?
Does this mean that I—
Cerny held up a finger. Temporary and unofficial reinstatement, Brano. These might come in handy. He reached in his pocket and handed over Brano’s old internal passport, marked with the crest of the Ministry: a hawk with folded wings, its head turned aside. The Lieutenant General wasn’t in favor of it, but I used my influence. And if you distinguish yourself, then there’s a chance—
“That your wife?” the waitress asked.
Brano closed the file. “Wife?”
“She’s pretty.”
“Thank you.”
Among the papers he found a brief typed summary of the file’s contents. Soroka had been born in 1934 in Sanok, to Wladislaw and Soft Soroka, farmers. His childhood was not mentioned, nor his parents’ 1947 transfer to the Bóbrka Petroleum Works, though it was noted that in 1950, at sixteen, Jan was part of a Red Pioneer trip to the Capital to shake hands with General Secretary Mihai and see the sights. When he was twenty-three, Jan applied for and received permission to move to the Capital, where he advised the Central Gas Industry Committee as part of the industrial reform program Mihai had implemented the year before, in 1956, some months before his death. Before he disappeared, Soroka attended a conference in the spa town of Gyula on “the future of power in the socialist neighborhood,” attended by scientists from all over the Empire, specialists in gas, petroleum, and nuclear energy. But a week after it ended, his wife, Lia, filed a missing person’s report—Jan had never returned home. Militia Lieutenant Emil Brod investigated it—but without success. A line toward the end of the summary said, “EXTERNAL ACTIVITIES: See attached.”
The Vienna report’s five pages speculated on Soroka’s date of entry into Austria—21 August, six days after Brano had left—and listed various places he had visited. The list was not exceptional. There were the regular sights—the Stephansdom, the MAK, the Schönbrunn Palace—and bars where one might run into one’s own countrymen, the most well known being the Carp, on Sterngasse. Then, on 25 August, a Thursday, he first entered the American embassy. During that five-hour visit, his hotel room was searched, but nothing of interest was found. Soroka returned to the embassy the next day, for only an hour. He then went to the Carp and got drunk.
On the following Monday, he appeared for the first time at the Raiffeisen-bank and, as far as the agents could discern from their vantage on the other side of the lobby, opened an account. This was never properly verified.
The report became sporadic after that, skimming over the following three months with summaries. Soroka began eating in specific restaurants and going to a limited number of bars—the Carp most often—and made brief friendships before dropping out of touch. It was the life of a dissatisfied exile. A couple of these acquaintances were agents who tried to get the story out of him, but short of a full interrogation there was no way to learn more. He was not considered important enough to abduct—which, the report speculated, was probably a mistake, because on 18 November he returned to the American embassy and did not emerge again.
Brano said, Who’s the Vienna rezident now?
Cerny pressed his lips together. Josef Lochert.
He—But Brano didn’t finish the sentence. After his expulsion from the Ministry and five months standing beside an automated belt, this was, finally, something. So where does Soroka say he’s been all this time?
The Comrade Colonel grunted his delight. You’ll like this. He says he’s been with a mistress in Szuha—a small village near the Ukrainian border. Guess her name.
I don’t know.
Dijana Frankovi?.
Brano flinched.
Yes, said Cerny. I don’t know what the Americans are up to. They know we’re aware Soroka was in Vienna, but they’re willing to send him in with a terrible cover. We want to know what’s going on.
We?
Myself, and the Comrade Lieutenant General.
I see.
Don’t misjudge him, said Cerny. What he did to you was what he thought he had to do.
He wanted me in prison.
Colonel Cerny shook the newspaper at him. Well, when Josef Lochert reported that you’d attacked him and tried to sabotage the operation . . . what did you expect him to think?
Thank you again, by the way, said Brano. For keeping me out of prison.
You know I’d do much more for you. He stood up and looked through the glass at the factory that reached beyond his line of sight. Maybe this isn’t much better. He stuck out a hand, and Brano took it. So? Have I put something bright into an otherwise dull day?
You’ve put something bright into an otherwise dull life.
Cerny tossed him the Kurier. Enjoy the read. That stuff is no good for my bladder.Brano accepted the gift of a small roll from his waitress and drove through the mountains to the other side, passing Turka and then moving farther north beyond the Carpathian hills. Giraltovce and Svidník glided past, and after dark he reached Dukla. There was a new billboard outside town, briefly lit by his headlights: General Secretary Tomiak Pankov, bald head shining above a blue suit, stood smiling, arms out, while around him a ring of twenty children danced. Beneath: THE SOCIALIST WORLD IS THE WORLD OF PEACE.
With children dancing in his head, Brano drove north into the forest.
He could not see the drilling machinery in the dark, but he knew it was there, among the pines. As he emerged into the sparse, rolling terrain that led to the village, he had an overwhelming urge to turn back. A couple of houses appeared on the left—new, unfamiliar homes—but the graveyard on the right brought on the subtle push of nostalgia he’d been waiting for. He took a left at the crossroad and drove into the center of Bóbrka.
It seemed that everything was already known to him in this town of less than four hundred; everything was tactile. The lit windows with their rough lace curtains, the tire-mangled road, the sharp grass springing up in his headlights, the fogged windows of the village’s one bar and the old man shivering outside in the cold with a beer in his hand, watching Brano’s Trabant roll past. Otherwise, the village was deserted. The bus stop was dark, though the yellow church with its statue of the Virgin Mary was lit by a floodlight. He followed the right-hand bend in the road, passing the small state store his mother ran, continuing without looking at the prim homes leading up to hers.
Brano was genuinely surprised to see the house as it had always been, small and remote from the road. After the dynamism of the Capital, he was in a place that lived as if nothing had changed in the last fifty years.
He parked in the gravel, took out his suitcase and briefcase, and paused at the gate. He took breaths of cold air until the red tint in his cheeks began to fade.
The kitchen light glowed from around the side of the house, so he walked through shrubs to the kitchen door. Whitewashed by the thin lace curtain, she was still heavy, her thick elbows on the table, staring at the playing cards laid out before her. She jumped at his knock.
As Iwona Sev approached the door she squinted, and he leaned close to the glass to help her out. Then her head slid back, eyes filling with light before the smile came. She pulled the door open and shouted, “Brani!”
He kissed her, then came into the kitchen, which had also never heard of progress. Wood-burning stove, gas lamp, a pail of fat in the corner. She held his face by the chin and turned it in the light. “You’re thin, thin. Are you all right? Is everything okay?”
He noticed that on her forehead, between her eyes, was a smear of soot. He kissed her cheeks again. “I’m just taking a vacation. It’s all right to stay here?”
“How can you even ask? It’s not every day I have my son here. Or every year, for that matter.” She tried to take his suitcase, but he wouldn’t let her. “Get those to your room and I’ll make something to eat. You must be hungry.”
He tilted his head from side to side.
“Of course you are. I’ll heat some soup.”
“You’ve got a spot,” he said, touching his own forehead.
She opened her mouth, blushing. “Oh yes, yes.” She wiped the spot with a thumb and looked at her dirty print. “If I had an electric stove, I’d be a lot cleaner.”
It could not really be called “his” room anymore. All personal effects—the toy oxcart with the broken wheel, the rotary board game, and even the set of French metal skiers with little metal skis and sleds—had been removed long ago, and his younger sister, Klara, had taken her possessions to her own home on the outskirts of Bóbrka. A group of framed photographs hung on the wall in a loose pastiche of half-forgotten faces. Uncles and distant cousins who were killed in the war, and their wives, who had remarried or stuck out the following years in solitude. A group shot of his mother’s family from the ’teens, faces serious, as befitted the weight of such a sitting. Brano was also there, at two, and at six years old, with curls that made him look uncomfortably like a girl; Klara as a nine-year-old had the same intense features she had carried into adulthood. In the center, a larger portrait of his father—his Tati—stood sentry over the others. It had been taken during the war, a young man’s face with too many worry lines sprouting from his eyes. His mouth was open, revealing the chipped front tooth Brano always imagined when he tried to remember the face of Andrezej Fedor Sev.
He sat on the edge of the bed, gazing at that tooth. The man was probably dead now, one tiny fraction of the endless stream of refugees who made their way west after the war. But this man had been ordered to leave, by his son, on a frigid October night.
Brano wiped his palms dry on his knees.
It was not his room anymore. It had become a home for guests. A guest room, and he was a guest. He put the suitcase into the wardrobe.
Her forehead was clean and the cards cleared away. She was heating pork stew in an iron pot and toasting bread. He asked her about the store. “Well, you know. Eugen is a good boy, but I don’t need him. I could do all the work myself. It’s a small place. But the State wants two employees, and who am I to argue?”
“You could bring it up at a council meeting.”
“Do you think that would help?”
“The State can’t know things unless it’s told.”
She hummed beneath her breath and stirred the fragrant soup. She added a spoonful of fat from the pail and let it cook a little more before ladling it into a bowl and collecting the toast. She poured him a glass of brandy and seemed pleased just to watch him eat.
He told her a few necessary details about the Pidkora factory and spent more time describing new construction in the Capital and everything that was changing. “The metro was a fantastic success.”
“That’s a good thing,” she said.
“When you travel you see the entire cross-section of the city—Gypsies and workers and university professors riding side by side.”
“And Politburo men?”
“Mother.”
“I’m only asking.”
He finished eating and sipped the warm brandy. She poured herself one and refilled his.
“And what about your personal life, Brani? Do you have friends? Any women you’d like your mother to meet?”
He hesitated. “No, no women.”
“You’re not so young anymore.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“And when you reach a certain age you’ll kick yourself for not having a wife.”
“It’s possible.”
“Maybe we can find you a nice girl around here.”
“No. Mother, don’t try that.”
“If you’re not going to be sensible, then I’ll have to be sensible for you.”
“Mother.”
She finished her glass. “What, son-of-mine?”
“I’m quite happy with my life.”
“Nonsense. No one is happy with their life. Your Tati used to say that all the time, and he knew what he was talking about.”
He stared at his drink until she let the subject go. She went on to other matters, and by eleven had told him all about the happenings in Bóbrka. Alina Winieckim and Gerik Gargas had died in the last six months, the first of encephalitis, the other in a gory drilling accident. Alina’s husband, Lubomir, got a permit to move to the Capital—“Did you hear from him? I gave him your phone number.” Brano hadn’t. “Always unsociable, Lubomir. Always . . .” She twisted an index finger against her temple to signify insanity, then told him that the entire Ulanowicz clan had moved to Uzhorod.
Brano rubbed his eyes.
But there was good news as well, she told him. Wincet and Kalena Szybalski had gotten married after only a three-week courtship (though Kalena’s soon-swelling belly made the reason clear enough). Also married were Piotr and Jolanta, and Augustyn and Olesia. “There’s love in the air,” she said. “Maybe you’ll smell it, too.” Krystyna Knippelberg was seven months pregnant with her sixth. “You should see how ecstatic she is. But who wants six children? All she really wants is one of those Motherhood Medals, it’s obvious.”
“Is that so bad?”
“It’s bad when you can’t feed the five children you’ve got. Krystyna will have to send one off to the orphanage, mark my words.”
The most spectacular news, however, of Jan Soroka’s mysterious appearance did not cross her lips.
“And what about my sister?”
She yawned into the back of her hand, then took the bottle to refill his glass, stopping when she saw it hadn’t been touched. “Klara is doing well. Oh, very well. She and Lucjan are as happy as you can imagine. No children, though I talk to her.” She drank her brandy and put her chin in her hand. “Maybe Lucjan is seedless. You can’t blame a man for that, but I would like some grandchildren before I’m dead. Klara’s not my only child, though.”
“Maybe.”
“You see?” she said as she got up. “It’s not just in the Capital that interesting things happen.”
She kissed him good night and left the brandy out, but he didn’t drink any more. He sipped tap water and read Colonel Cerny’s copy of Kurier. In a long column called “An Eye into the Other Side,” Filip Lutz told of his own interrogation in 1961, a year before he escaped through Prague to the West. He said that the brutal treatment he received at the hands of the Ministry for State Security was the sure sign of a paranoiac society in the advanced stages of collapse. He gave the regime three years at most.
When the words began to blur, he went to the bedroom, undressed and folded his clothes, then climbed into the cold bed.
Brano was not the kind of man who liked to recall his youth, preferring to forget that time of zbrka—Dijana Frankovi?’s word for “the confusion of too many thing.” Before and during the war, he had stumbled through the stages leading to adulthood with his loud friend, Marek. The road to adulthood had been so clumsy and hesitant that even at the end of that life he was still unsure what to call himself. But after sending away his father, the zbrka dissipated. He was Brano Oleksy Sev, first a private, and then a sergeant, a captain, a lieutenant, a major. Then a factory worker. Now, he was neither an officer nor a worker but something undefined, lying in this cold room in the north of the country, where he always found the childhood zbrka waiting patiently for him.


Continues...

Excerpted from 36 Yalta Boulevard by Olen Steinhauer Copyright © 2006 by Olen Steinhauer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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“[Steinhauer’s] people are real, the crimes genuine, and he is telling larger truths about that era, making it unusually accessible.”
---David Halberstam, LA Times on 36 Yalta Boulevard
 

Olen Steinhauer’s first two novels, The Bridge of Sighs and The Confession, launched an acclaimed literary crime series set in post--World War II Eastern Europe. Now he takes his dynamic cast of characters into the shadowy political climate of the 1960s.
State Security Officer Brano Sev’s job is to do what his superiors ask, no matter what. Even if that means leaving his post to work the assembly line in a factory, fitting electrical wires into gauges. So when he gets a directive from his old bosses---the intimidating men above him at the Ministry of State Security, collectively known for the address of their headquarters on Yalta Boulevard, a windowless building consisting of blind offices and dark cells---he follows orders.
This time he is to resume his job in State Security and travel to the village of his birth in order to interrogate a potential defector. But when a villager turns up dead shortly after he arrives, Brano is framed for the murder. Again trusting his superiors, he assumes this is part of their plan and allows it to run its course, a decision that leads him into exile in Vienna, where he finally begins to ask questions.
The answers in 36 Yalta Boulevard, Olen Steinhauer’s tour-de-force political thriller, teach Comrade Brano Sev that loyalty to the cause might be the biggest crime of all.
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Reading Group Guide

Olen Steinhauer's acclaimed first two novels, The Bridge of Sighs and The Confession, have garnered thus far an Edgar nomination, an Anthony nomination, a Macavity nomination, a Historical Dagger nomination, and five starred reviews. Now he takes this superb literary series set in a nameless Eastern European country into the 1960s.

State Security Officer Brano Sev is the secretive member of the homicide department of the capital's people's militia. No one else quite trusts him, but it is part of his job to do what the authorities ask, no matter what. So when he gets an order to travel to the village of his birth in order to interrogate a potential defector, he goes. When a man turns up dead shortly after he arrives, and Brano is framed for the murder, he assumes this is part of the plan and allows it to run its course. But when the plan leads him into exile in Vienna, he finally begins to ask questions.

In fact, in 36 Yalta Boulevard, a tour-de-force political thriller from Olen Steinhauer, Comrade Brano Sev learns that loyalty to the cause might be the biggest crime of all.

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Excellent

    In 1966, Major Brano Sev is sent from his Communist nation to Vienna to uncover Code Name Gavrilo, a traitor leaking information to the West. However, the State Security Officer, who has replaced the murdered Kristina Urben, wakes up with amnesia in a park. He learns that the mission was accomplished, but upon disembarking the plane he is arrested for turning traitor too as his assistant Lochert painted quite a spin on what really happened in Vienna...................... Brano lives due to the interactions of his former superior, Colonel Cerny. After six months in a factory, Cerny assigns Brano to visit his hometown of Bobrka to interrogate a possible defector Jan Soroka. Welcomed home by his mother, but no one else as everyone knows what he does for a living, Brano becomes the prime suspect in the murder of Jacob Bieneck. He does little to defend himself against the frame as he assumes this is his cover to enable him to learn the truth. Instead he finds himself back in Vienna wondering who besides Lochert betrayed him and why, but he believes that it is probably too late to prove he did not commit homicide.................... This Cold War espionage thriller will remind the audience of the early works of LeCarre although the key protagonist is an Eastern block spy. Brano is a terrific protagonist as he follows orders to such a degree that he jeopardizes himself as he never considered that he was being set up until his forced return to Vienna in spite of Lochert¿s devastating misinformation campaign. Olen Steinhauer writes another fantastic tale. If you have not read him you are missing quite a suspense treat (see THE CONFESSION and BRIDGE OF SIGHS)..................... Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2012

    Typographical Errors Throughout

    My hope is that the author, his editor or his publisher will see why someone would give an excellent author one star. The answer is that I am grading the egregious typographical errors in the book. Barnes & Noble claims this is the publisher’s fault. While this may be true, they still have no qualms in taking your money. If this were a hardbound book you could get your money back. With a shoddy ebook you are stuck with a poor reading experience and a book in your collection that you would never want to read again. St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur and Macmillan Publishers should be embarrassed.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted May 31, 2011

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    Posted April 13, 2009

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