Novel: Liberation Movements by Olen Steinhauer

Olen Steinhauer takes the Yalta Boulevard Sequence in striking new directions with Liberation Movements (2006), a nonlinear novel that ricochets through protagonists, timelines, and tenses. The fourth volume brings us to another decade, the seventies, and the thematic arc of the series really starts to take shape with this intense, ambitious book.

This one…I would say begins, but really just temporally orbits, an act of terror in 1975, when an Armenian liberation group blows up a plane en route to Istanbul from the series’ (still!) unnamed country. Solving the case falls to a pair of young investigators: Gavra Noukas, Brano Sev’s new protégé in the Ministry for State Security, and Katja Drdova, a troubled young homicide inspector. Their investigation points in strange directions, including towards a secret government facility researching the paranormal. But for all the systemic corruption and conspiracies looming over the mystery, it all ties back to the single, selfish act of a lone person caught in the gears of a ruthless  system, and uncovering the truth leads Gavra and Katja into their own acts of drastic personal transformation.

In some ways, Liberation Movements is the most difficult read of the four volumes so far. The core characters of the series are relegated to supporting roles as the focus shifts to unfamiliar faces, and the story jumps backwards and forwards through time, changing perspectives and tenses. The structural experimentation is ambitious and challenging, and  it takes concentration to assemble the various timelines and plot components into a cohesive picture. Quite a difference from the detailed, meticulous narratives of the first two books. Additionally, the book very nearly veers into incongruous science fiction/fantasy territory; quite a shock in the context of this series. On some levels, I found it a more problematic book than its predecessors.

Despite this, it still blazes along entertainingly, and in many ways it’s no less impressive, particularly when considered as a component of the larger sequence. Steinhauer hasn’t just written a series of espionage crime thrillers; he’s chronicling an era of history, through the fictional lens of his unnamed country. The thematic progression of the series becomes quite striking here. In the early books, the personal lives of the protagonists are encroached upon by the machinery of the socialist system. But in Liberation Movements, the pendulum starts to swing back the other way, as  two servants of the system find their uncomfortable place in its hierarchy challenged by the encroachment of the personal. This strikes me as a highly deliberate progression, showing the system moving in to take over, and then slowly eroding as it fails to serve the needs of the individual. (Fittingly, the middle volume focuses on Brano Sev, an erstwhile cog whose faith remains relatively constant, despite many challenges.)

In the end, Liberation Movements didn’t quite score on the same level for me as an individual novel, but it succeeded wildly as a chapter of the series, more strong support that the Yalta Boulevard Sequence is a remarkable achievement in its genre.

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