The Woman From Bratislava, Leif Davidsen

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TWfBratislavaI came across Leif Davidsen while traveling to Copenhagen. I hadn’t heard of him before. Though there’s been quite a surge in Scandinavian crime fiction, I was somehow disappointed with them, and wasn’t sure I’d enjoy yet another crime investigation from up north. But the passenger next to me, who happened to be an English teacher in Copenhagen, promised that I would not disappointed.

8 months later, I can confirm she was right.

I don’t know which label to give to this book. The cover’s tagline says “One of Denmark’s top crime writers”. I wouldn’t say this book is a crime novel, not in the sense of police procedural novels, nor is there a detective sniffing around, or CSIs revealing last-minute scientific truths. I wouldn’t also say it’s a spy novel, even though the word Bratislava tricked me into thinking that when I picked it up. Let’s say that it’s a genre of its own.

Set against the backdrop of the NATO bombing on Serbia and Kosovo, the story is told from the perspective of the three main characters: Teddy Pedersen, the history professor who is on tour in the Balkans, Per Toftlund, the PET (Denmark’s Internal Security Intelligence Agency) detective assigned to the case, and Irma, Teddy’s sister the main suspect in the case.

The case is nothing more than a suspicion that PET has about a mole inside of NATO; a mole that was potentially operating as a double agent for the Russians during the communist times and who might have caused the liquidation of Danish spies by the Russians, at the time. A mole who goes by the lovely name of Edelweiss. The reader forms a clear idea of the case in the second part of the book when the perspective of the story shifts to that of Per Toftlund.

To get to that, we first spend 100 pages with Teddy. I loved that character: he is sarcastic, funny, with his marriage falling apart, mostly because of his mistakes, wishing that he could fix it, while at the same time admitting that he is a serial cheater, who couldn’t be bothered to phone in home to check on the family. Still, he’s able to admit that:

We imagine that we live in an age when our hearts cannot be broken, but betrayal and broken promises hurt as much as they ever did.

In his touring of Eastern Europe, Teddy notes the transition between communism and capitalism. The book was published in Denmark in 2001, and so the remarks he makes were pertinent for the time. In Bratislava, he remarks:

Nowhere in the world will you find finer street musicians. And always there is a beggar with no legs, a little old lady swathed in shawls or a cripple covered in running sores. The communists hid them out of the way, Capitalism has driven them out into the open in all their pitiful wretchedness. It is easy, in today’s post-communist world, to feel like a socialist.

In Bratislava, Teddy encounters the woman from Bratislava, who turns out to be his half-sister, who harshly reveals to him that his father did not die in Hamburg when Teddy was 3, that he led a full life in Bratislava with his wife, whom he met during the war when he was fighting on the side of the Nazis, part of the Danish Legion. A bit too much even for our embittered Teddy. What’s worse, his sister Irma and his brother Fritz knew about the resurrected father in Bratislava. His half sister leaves him with an envelope of pictures and documents proving her story to him and upon her departure Teddy is hit by a lumbago that prevents him from continuing the trip further to Budapest. This saves his life. The room he was supposed to book is ransacked at night and the colleague who substituted Teddy is found murdered.

I wished the book was told from Teddy’s perspective. I’m beginning to warm up to first person narratives, but I suppose for our case, we needed the lucidity and the detached look of Per Toftlund.

Per is the opposite of Teddy. A calm individual married in love and expecting a child. Per had messed up a surveillance mission he had and was disciplined by being transferred to Immigration & Customs. His former boss throws him a bone, and gives him a chance to reintegrate PET by assigning him on the Edelweiss case. What was supposed to be a tracking of a mole inside NATO takes on a different form when a Stealth bomber is shot down by the Serbs. A catastrophe since those bombers are not supposed to be detected. With the Russians implicitly taking the side of the Serbs, shooting down the bomber will give their engineers a chance to deconstruct it to obtain the technology they are missing.

Irma, suspected of leaking out the information of the flight path of that Stealth bomber to the Russians or to the Serbs, is arrested as she returns from Stockholm and held in solitary confinement in Denmark. The third perspective opens up on another first-person narrative in a letter she addresses to her half-sister, the woman from Bratislava, in which she details her childhood, her Nazi-collaborating father and the turn of events in her life that led her towards the radical left in the 70s.

The joy I got from reading this book did not come from solving the case, from the twists in tracking down Edelweiss, from uncovering who killed Teddy’s substitute in Budapest. I liked the changing perspectives, the realities of politics and international security that are never stable but that shift with changing parties, changing ideologies and changing interests, to the point where one wonders who is a traitor and who is a hero. Similarly, these changes are cascaded upon the main characters of the novels, and they undergo changes when realities change.

Teddy, for example, cannot view his father as being a servant of his country when he takes up arms and joins the Danish legion to fight alongside the Nazis, encouraged by the then Danish government, which quickly rids itself of the more outspoken Nazi-collaborators once it became clear Nazi Germany was going to lose the war.  At the same time, the Estonians do not view the pro-Nazi Danish Legion as evil because they helped them backing off the Russians on their borders and prevented a massacre. Per Toftlund gradually realizes that he can no longer act fearlessly and almost carelessly in his missions when he knows there is a wife and a child waiting back home, and that working for PET, there were no clearly defined rules of right and wrong as matters are in Immigration and Customs.

I also loved the walkthrough details of the Easter European capitals, Prague, Tirana, Budapest, Bratislava and Warsaw. Ten years after the fall of communism the change is still not visible in the building and the infrastructure but in the advertisements and in the pervading English. Posters that called women forward towards the great socialist revolution now advertised cosmetics “for the better you”, hotels, restaurants and pubs that once had a particular Bratislavian cachet now resemble any other hotel anywhere around the world. It is not unlike how it was for us in Lebanon during the war, especially with the political posters or the figures of resistance that were plastered everywhere one’s gaze landed were replaced almost overnight with corporate logos, Coca-Cola and Johnny Walker and the like (in the case of Lebanon it was more Pepsi and Dewar’s) and gradually French lost its distinguished appeal over people and everyone, with time, shifted to a form of English.

To quote about the above from the book, here is Teddy explaining to Teddy about Albania post-communism:

When all the apparatus of the market-economy spilled into this country in the early nineties the population was totally unprepared for it. It was like putting a virgin in bed with a porn star.

I highly recommend this book: it is funny, it is shocking at times, and it is quite informative for someone, like me, not well knowledgeable about Eastern & Central Europe and their transition into the market-economy. I will be picking up more titles from Leif Davidsen. Perhaps in the others the intrigue will be more prominent the writing less entertaining, but I am sure, as it is in this book, they will balance themselves out to my pleasure.

 

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