The popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction has led to novels from all over the world being translated into English, perhaps in pursuit of the next big thing. More crime books can only be a good thing for crime fiction lovers, though, and here we have a release from Profusion, an independent publisher bringing Romanian talent to the English-speaking world.
Stelian Munteanu, book editor and journalist, spendthrift man-about-town and sometime sharpshooter, is facing the greatest dilemma of his life. One morning he finds himself on the top floor of a building overlooking the Hotel Haydn on one of Vienna’s busiest shopping streets. His finger is on the trigger guard of a Steyr-Mannlicher rifle used by the Austrian special forces. Through the crosshairs he can see the sleeping figure of retired army general Gheorghe Simionescu, a man he has known for 15 years. If Stelian shoots his target, his debts will be wiped out and he can start a new life with the woman he loves and his beloved daughter. Why should he care about the General, who is probably tainted by his connections with the murderous pre-1989 Communist regime in Romania?
And yet Stelian hesitates. Through this moment of hesitation and a series of flashbacks we find out more about him in the first part of the story. We also discover the exact nature of his relationship with the General and a broad panorama of life in Romania during the past two or three tumultuous decades. Will Stelian go through with the assassination attempt? Will he be brought to justice or will he be forced to sink ever-deeper into the role of a paid killer? Stelian’s decision and its consequences form the second part of the story. Part political thriller and part personal history, this is a complex tale of conspiracy and the lingering effects of totalitarian regimes upon individuals.
The unusual element in this thriller is that it is told in the first person by Stelian himself. Few other writers have tried to put their readers into the shoes of a would-be assassin, to make them sympathise with him and understand his motivation. Perhaps there is a good reason why this is rarely attempted: I am not quite sure it works. There is so much biographical information here that I was surprised to discover that this book, the first of Bogdan Hrib’s to be translated into English, is actually the fourth in a series about the adventures of Stelian Munteanu.
There is much that is good here – characters you love to hate, lively dialogues, unexpected plot twists and fascinating details about a very different way of life. However, the novel cannot quite make up its mind what sort of book it is. A character portrait of a conflicted man? A social fresco of a country on the brink of collapse? An assassination thriller? Or, the story of an unusual kind of friendship? I also struggled a little with the time sequences: short scenes skipping backwards and forwards in time, from August 2010 to 1985, then 2009, then 1986, then February 2010, and so on, which is confusing and does not necessarily add much to the story.
If you are expecting The Day of the Jackal, this is not the book for you. It is not quite a fully-fledged thriller. It portrays a very different world, where no one can trust anyone, with constantly changing goalposts and few – if any – moral certainties. It is also written in a very different style than readers in the English-speaking world might be accustomed to. Profusion is to be commended for its effort to make crime fiction from Romania available to a wider audience, although you may find the use of often unnecessary footnotes a little off-putting.
However, if you are ready to try something completely new and different, if you are ready to explore a new geographical region in your crime fiction, then I recommend this rollercoaster ride of East European action.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars