3 out of 4 stars
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The Golden Rule: Sex, Drugs, & Stalking Moles in Czechoslovakia by Stephen L.W. Greene is a fascinating blend of real events and fiction, and, if I could, I'd like to call it alternate history. Carl Hoffman, a scientist from America, arrives to the Czech Socialist Republic in order to recruit a Czech scientist for his friend back home, businessman and childhood friend, Ted Ramsey. Yet, as soon as he gets there, it becomes clear that no one is who they seem and that Carl and his newfound friend Milan are in danger.
I enjoyed the descriptions of real places in Prague and of real events just as much as I enjoyed the invented ones. In truth, once I finished the book I found myself doing research as to what was real and what wasn't. I was shocked to learn that the facilities and their scientists that Carl was investigating were actually real, and really did develop psychochemical agents that were considered for use in warfare and in interrogation. This book contained many historical details I'd never heard of, and, in truth, many passages are devoted to this history. It seems that the author did extensive research, and it certainly shows.
The symbolism is heavy in this book, as is dramatic irony. From the beginning, the book makes it clear what will eventually happen to Milan and Carl. The readers can only watch and despair. In fact, Carl is most often compared to a historical figure, Jan Huss, a dissident leader who criticized the Roman church's practices. Like Carl, Huss was lured to a foreign country and persecuted for rebelling against the status quo. Despite being warned of the dangers, I saw Carl as being too trusting when it came to the people he encountered, which made him all the more tragic. In particular, he trusts Vera, a guide sent to spy on him and a complex character in her own right, far too much. Milan, Vera's brother, is even more tragic. When we first see him, he's bubbly and cheerful. Many times, he made me laugh outright and he quickly became my favorite character. His rampant positivity brightened up the novel as much as it made the story even more tragic. I adored the character of Milan as much as I pitied him. While Carl came to Czechoslovakia of his own free will, knowing the risks, Milan was a Czech citizen caught in the crossfire. As a direct result of simply associating with Carl, he paid a heavy price. Nora, Milan's girlfriend, is often used to foreshadow future events, as many characters believe she has hidden knowledge. She is also a complex character, as she sets many of the events in the novel in motion, and inspires Carl and Milan to rebel against capitalism following the fall of communism.
I admit that I thought this book would be more action-packed, considering this is a novel about spies during the fall of communism. Instead, the book moves at a slow pace at times while the novel takes a break to describe historical events that relate to what's going on. My attention wavered sometimes while I read these parts. I enjoyed learning more about Prague and Czech culture, but I still found myself disappointed at times. Instead of focusing on the drama of undercover spies in pre and post-communist Czechoslovakia, the book instead became a bohemian critique on communism and capitalism as a whole, with quasi-religious figures at the head. While I still enjoyed the book, this puzzled me at times. Many readers may enjoy the heavy use of allegory and symbolism in this book, but I can't recommend it to readers simply looking for an action-packed spy novel.
While not what I'd expected, I will say that this is still a good book, and I rate The Golden Rule 3 out of 4 stars. This book is clearly professionally edited, as I only found one error in my reading. Also, as implied by the full title, this book definitely isn't for kids. Irony is a main feature of this book, following the Czech sense of humor that is often used. After the fall of communism, we watch many communist leaders become prominent capitalists. Over time, as capitalism takes over, the Czech people begin to see the inequality and begin to wish for the “good times” under communism, when everyone had nothing. Surely, the book proclaims, there must be a happy medium?
The Golden Rule: Sex, Drugs & Stalking Moles in Czechoslovakia
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