The Bridge of Sighs by Olen Steinhauer

I’ve long had a fascination with the Slavic peoples and nations. I have read everything that Alexander Solzhenitsyn has written. (This is a whole shelf of books. Remember the joke about the “short” Russian novel?) I remember my first read (it was in winter in Pennsylvania) of A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, and the three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago. I was so traumatized that I could only eat soup and weak hot tea for weeks. After reading Solzhenitsyn, I concluded that most Americans have no idea of how much bad politics can cause people to suffer. In Volume I, he dedicates his book (which he memorized while in prison!):

“I dedicate this to all those who did not live to tell it. And may they please forgive me for not having seen it all nor remembered it all, for not having divined all of it.”

I was truly surprised and impressed by Olen’s Steinhauer’s The Bridge of Sighs (St. Martin’s Press) which I completed reading tonight. I’m sorry that I just now discovered Steinhauer, a writer who not only has a solid grip on the writing craft, but truly has insights into life that cut the heart or touch the soul. Recommended by my close friend Bonnie Barnes in Fort Worth, the title of the novel caught my attention first. I knew about the Bridge of Sighs from my research of Venice and from Lord Byron’s poem, Don Juan. Wickipedia adds this on the Bridge of Sighs:

“The bridge name, given by Lord Byron in the 19th century, comes from the suggestion that prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice out the window before being taken down to their cells. In reality, the days of inquisitions and summary executions were over by the time the bridge was built, and the cells under the palace roof were occupied mostly by small-time criminals[1].
A local legend says that lovers will be assured eternal love if they kiss on a gondola at sunset under the bridge. This legend played a key part in the 1979 film A Little Romance.”

The Bridge of Sighs is a novel that effectively takes the reader into the mind, heart, and body of the protagonist detective, Emil Brod. The novel’s setting is post WWII Eastern Europe. With ruthless honesty, Steinhauer, an award winning author, paints the canvass of this world, and the depth of his research (and I believe personal interviews) are obvious. If you have read, thought, or wondered about Eastern Europe in the years after World War II, you are sure to enjoy this read. Here are a few (of the many I underlined) quotes from the novel that caught my eye:

Others make the rules, he had said. We only try to live by them (p. 221)

Yes, he would admit to anything in the end [after torture] in the end, because that’s how human beings were. (p. 239)

“In both these events he head been close enough to smell the dead, but too late to make a difference” (61).

“The life of a refugee was not photogenic” (253).

“One man only has so much loyalty. Figure out where yours lies” (17).