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Monday, April 28, 2014

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

Minotaur Books, 416 pages, $26.99

I was almost finished with A Cairo Affair when I read something in a newspaper that mentioned a negative review of this book in The New York Times. Although I usually avoid reading reviews of books I’m reading until my review is written, I knew I had to take a peek. I was enjoying this book very much and unless the last quarter of the book was totally gonzo, I couldn’t imagine someone lambasting it. (And this is from a reader who read Olen Steinhauer’s first book, Bridge of Sighs, and decided I didn’t need to read any more books by him, despite pretty uniform praise for his works.)

I read the review. It was by James McBride, whose book, The Good Lord Bird, I found well-written, entertaining, and clever. Mr. McBride really didn’t like The Cairo Affair. He made it sound shallow and chaotic. That must take place in the last quarter of the book, I decided, because nothing I had read to that point warranted that denunciation. I read on until the end and decided that Mr. McBride coincidentally must have been reading a different book by an author with the same name and with the same characters. I liked this book and found nothing objectionable.

Unlike Steinhauer’s The Bridge of Sighs, which featured an unnamed Balkan country with a main character so dour that I had to turn all the lights on for a better atmosphere in which to read the book, The Cairo Affair mainly takes place in Cairo, Egypt. There still wasn’t any lightness but there was more warmth, especially with Egyptian spy Omar Halawi and his wife, Fouada.

Basically, Steinhauer does something very clever. He takes four of his characters and tells the story from their alternating perspectives. Sometimes Steinhauer would show a certain incident from two different viewpoints, and the story was enhanced and advanced just a little further in an unexpected direction. So much better than most of the now-popular slash-and-dash of interspersing flashbacks and current narrative.

Although some of the story is defined by an event in 1991, most of the story takes place in 2011 in Cairo. Having said that, the triggering event takes place in Budapest. Emmett Kohl, a functionary with the U.S. Embassy in Hungary, is murdered while he is having dinner with his wife, Sophie. Unfortunately, after twenty years of an amicable marriage, Emmett had chosen to accuse his wife of infidelity at the dinner. Yes, Sophie says, it’s true. Then, bang, Emmett is summarily dismissed from the conversation by his killer.

Why was he killed? Sophie knew that his previous assignment in Cairo was some sort of turning point, but she never knew why. It certainly was a turning point for her. Steinhauer enigmatically says close to the start that she “had built a new life for herself, constructed of lies.”

Steinhauer also reveals early on that Jibril Aziz, a CIA analyst in D.C., was concerned about a plan he had developed, code named Stumbler, to consolidate anti-Gadhafi forces in Libya. He anxiously travels to Cairo, unofficially. Although he remains initially in the background, his story is pivotal. 

The other characters whom Steinhauer follows in Cairo are Stan Bertolli, Sophie’s lover; John Calhoun, a security contractor to the CIA; and Omar Halawi, an Egyptian spy. They may not necessarily be important to the narrative in and of themselves, but they are present at significant events. It is through them that Steinhauer gradually builds his story.

This book was clever and well-written. I found that my focus wasn’t on Sophie, however. Was she the intended sympathetic character? No sympathy from this corner. Instead, I was taken by Omar and Fouada, the moral center of this piece.

The bonus was Steinhauer’s description of Cairo and Egyptian politics.

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