THE CAIRO AFFAIR by Olen Steinhauer

Book Quote:

When you live in a house of mirrors, the only way to stay alive is to believe that every reflection is real.

Book Review:

Review by Jana L. Perskie  (MAR 18, 2014)

The Cairo Affair takes place in Egypt and Libya during 2011 with flashbacks to Serbia in 1991. It is set during the period when the regimes of dictators Hosni Mubarek, Egyptian President and military commander from 1981 to 2011, and Muammar Gaddafi, a Libyan revolutionary and the de facto ruler of Libya for 42 years, came to a violent end. The revolutionary events of the “Arab Spring” brought to conclusion various repressive Arab governments. The “Arab Spring” is widely believed to have been instigated by dissatisfaction with the rule of local governments, though some have speculated that wide gaps in income levels may have had a hand as well. Numerous factors led to the protests, including issues such as dictatorship or absolute monarchy, human rights violations, political corruption, (demonstrated by Wikileaks’ diplomatic cables), extreme poverty, and a large percentage of educated, jobless and dissatisfied youth. The storyline of  The Cairo Affair, takes place around the above events…and the events are often current, which makes this novel more interesting.

FLASHBACK: It is September 20, 1991, Sophie and Emmett Kohl are on on their honeymoon and madly in love. “Enthusiasm, imagination and commitment” are the qualities she most admires in her spouse. The newlywed couple choose to travel through Eastern Europe for a holiday. From their TVs at Harvard they’d watched the crumbling of the USSR with excitement. At age 22, Emmett has been to Europe previously, but Sophie has never traveled there. She longs to see Paris, the left bank cafes and the wonderful museums. Emmett tells her that they should go to places where “history is happening.” He wants to take a detour from the tourist attractions of Western Europe and travel to Eastern Europe. He tells Sophie that they would travel “the road less taken”…and she agrees.

They wait until September to make the trip so as to avoid the summer heat and the tourists. After four days in Vienna, where they wander down the broad avenues with their wedding cake buildings and museums, they visit the Sacher, the Stephansdom and the Kunsthalle and the cafes Central and Hofburg. Emmett comments that the city reminds him of Graham Greene’s 1949 British film noir, “The Thin Man.” On the fifth day they board a train to Prague. The couple moves on to Budapest and then they make an unexpected detour to Yugoslavia.

Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the dictator of Yugoslavia died in 1980, leaving the country, a socialist federation, without cohesive leadership. In March and April 1981, a student protest in Pristina, the capital of the then Yugoslav and Serbian province of Kosovo, led to widespread protests by the Kosovo Albanians demanding more autonomy within the Yugoslav federation. After Tito’s death in 1980, tensions between the Yugoslav republics emerged, and in 1991 the country disintegrated and went into a series of brutal wars that lasted the rest of the decade.

It is at this time of enormous tension when Emmett and Sophia choose to visit, knowing full well the dangerous situation in the country. They wind up in the city of Novi Sad where they become involved with an exuberant bunch of 20-something locals who insist that the American couple accompany them to a nearby disco. All their newly made friends are from Vojvodina, the city-state where Novi Sad is located. One such “friend” slams  “Miloševi?, took away our political autonomy. Ours and Kosovo’s. It stinks!” It is in a bar, late at night, when they meet Zora Balasevic, an attractive, hard looking woman in her 40s, who overwhelms the couple by discussing, (a one-sided conversation), Serbian history. “We are happy – you see? – to get rid of the Slovenes, but Croats want to steal our coast. Who pay for these beaches? (sic). Bosnia is next. There will be fire…”

FLASH FORWARD: It is winter 2011. Five politically active Libyan exiles have seemingly vanished from the face of the earth at the same time. Jibral Aziz, is a CIA agent working out of Langley and Cairo, and, with increasing frequency, over the border to Libya. He is a young Libyan American whose father was executed by the Gadhafi regime. Aziz is in Cairo under nonofficial cover, although he meets occasionally with Harry Wolcott, head of CIA activities in Egypt. Awhile back Aziz had concocted a plan, “Stumbler,” whose purpose was to have the US literally high-jack the revolution in Libya, using the exiles and revolutionaries as their front, (sound familiar?). The plan had the CIA turning a popular revolution into a CIA coup, thus giving the CIA complete control over the country’s development…. and, of course, OIL! Oil reserves in Libya are the largest in Africa and the fifth largest in the world. For a variety of reasons, “Stumbler was tabled.” So when it appears someone else has obtained a copy of the blueprints, Aziz alone knows the danger it represents as the players converge on the city of Cairo.

In the winter of 2011, Sophie and Emmett Kohl are stationed in Hungary where Emmet’s official title is “deputy consul.” They had worked/lived in Cairo before the transfer. Sophie, however, doesn’t really have “a life.” She is a 42 year-old lady of leisure, who graduated with honors from Harvard. She has tea with the wives of other diplomats, makes small talk at embassy cocktail parties, has her nails and hair done…and is bored out of her mind. On the evening of March 2, 2011 she meets her husband at a fancy restaurant and proceeds to tell him that she has been having an affair with his boss, Stan Bertolli, who is still in Cairo. She believes she loves him and he has certainly expressed his love for her.

Emmett, in a state of anger and betrayal, confides a long kept secret that had been bothering him. He had met, just once, with the infamous Zora Balasevic, from Serbian days. She is now a spy at the Serbian embassy in Cairo and she attempts to recruit him by blackmailing him. He right out refuses and so Zora backs-off. After the main course at dinner, a thug pops into the restaurant and shoots Emmett in the head in front of his disbelieving wife!

In shock, Sophie flees to Cairo and into Stan’s arms. She doesn’t know why the murder happened or who the perpetrator is. Stan will help her, she thinks. And she is in no shape to return to Massachusetts for Emmett’s funeral. Determined to find out why her husband was assassinated, she follows a trail that leads to the American Embassy in a tumultuous Cairo; to the revolution under way in neighboring Libya; to Langley, Virginia; and to her own ill-fated honeymoon in Eastern Europe.

There are many characters in this story, most with hidden identities, multiple roles, and many betrayals which unravel slowly but inevitably as we view events from several characters’ viewpoints. The fact that the narrative unfolds with a current events background makes this novel appear to be real…and perhaps some of it is. And the portrait the author paints of Cairo really brings the city to life with its colors, smells, people, etc.

Olen Steinhauer’s The Cairo Affair is a complex, well fleshed-out story of the Arab Spring, WikiLeaks, the CIA, a marriage and an affair, “that leaves the reader with the unsettling feeling that, despite all the information won, lost, and put to use, the world of intelligence is no stronger than the fragile, fallible humans who navigate it.” Here allegiances are never clear and outcomes are never guaranteed.

I highly recommend The Cairo Affair…especially for those readers who are fans of Eric Ambler and John le Carré.

NOTE:  There are no “spoilers” here. The review information takes place in the first few chapters of the novel.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 21 readers
PUBLISHER: Minotaur Books (March 18, 2014)
REVIEWER: Jana L. Perskie
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Olen Steinhauer
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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March 19, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Africa, Egypt, Thriller/Spy/Caper, World Lit

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