The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I must admit to having been more than a little non-plussed by this one. I did, against my usual better judgement, quickly see a few very good reviews before I read it. So my disappointment was multiplied accordingly.
Problem is, the politics down Cairo-way, is so buggered-up, so fluid, that no one knows what on earth is going on. Not least the people actually involved. And the people not involved, are all on the way up here now. It’s not that no one on the outside can possibly understand, it’s that those on the inside don’t, or won’t, or can’t understand (or all of the above) what needs to be done. Those on the outside can see sure enough what needs to be done, but those on the inside won’t listen – because we ‘don’t understand.’ So, we’ve more or less said ‘OK then, have it your way…’ and we stop bothering listening, being interested in, or caring about them. Until they turn up at our door. Why should we bother to find a solution, when it’s plain that no one down there wants one and that there actually isn’t a solution. So, to set a book down in north African/Arab politics, you’ve really got to have a bit more to get me worked up, than some interesting observations and a plot hinging on possible CIA meddling. Which may be leaks, maybe concerning the internal politics of a post-Gadaffi Libya. It needs a lot more to it than just they might, possibly have had a game-plan that they, or someone else, might just possibly be setting in motion. That sort of rumour and half-misinformed speculation happens every day, in just about every other ‘thriller’ you look at nowadays. And anyway, anything that goes right down there, is Allah’s will, anything that goes wrong, it’s the CIA’s meddling. Or Israel. You know it.
I think really he should have concentrated on any internal strife or conflict caused by back-stabbing within the USA and/or CIA, rather than trying to whip up interest from Eastern Europeans and Americans meddling in places they really shouldn’t. Actually, I can’t think what he was hoping I’d come away from it all with. There is some interesting stuff about the old Yugoslavia, the tensions that bubbled under the surface there, that were only kept in check by a ruthless dictator. And comparisons with what young Olen seems to (my interpretation) be suggesting is a similar situation developing out of the ‘Arab Spring’ (I’m pretty sure this was written before the fall of Gaddafi) and after the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, where volatile, pressure-cooker countries are/were only kept in check by ruthless dictators…
The book’s stylistic concept, of back-tracking over events and time, to see that event from another perspective and hear other views, is interesting enough. However, if you took all the double vision and backtracking out but one – even the one with the most page-time – you’d be left with a very short book, with a very slight story. What, with all the various views left in, we have got, is a decent-length book, trying to cover up a rather slight story.
I suppose you could argue it’s about trying to build your own future, but finding it difficult to impossible to free your feet from the clinging quicksand of your country’s past. But even that isn’t exactly a first, is it?
It promised much, the whole way through, but in the end, delivered very little. It’s an ok concept, but one that makes a book more concerned about getting the concept to work on paper, than making sure it’s a good story under the style.