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When Peter Ivanov has accumulated 50.000$ gambling debts with Yury Popov, the god-father of the Russian and Central Asian immigrant communities of Brighton Beach, N.Y., he does a runner to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. It doesn't take long for Yury to learn where he is, he orders two of his killers to find and liquidate him to set an example. His daughter Anna tells him she'll accompany them to supervise the operation. Why she's so dead set to have it out with Peter herself remains a mystery to her father.
Tashkent of all places. If Peter had known that an old buddy of Peter's, the Afghan Kurbon Usmanov, had become a top smuggler of carpets and heroin and an important protagonist in the Uzbek criminal underworld, he'd chosen a different destination. Soon he knows the inside of a prison, is involved in drug trafficking, and considers himself lucky if he succeeds in staying alive. His only asset is that he can speak Russian and thus converse with the majority of the population but how far can this get him without reliable contacts and no money?
The novel begins with the meeting of Yury Popov and Kurbon Usmanov as young men, then follows their criminal careers in the USA (Popov) and Uzbekistan (Usmanov) until their ways sort of cross again about 25 years later through Peter Ivanov. The plot is well constructed, the threads convincingly linked. The personnel consists of tough guys who, in spite of reacting according to the laws of crime, come over as individuals with idiosyncratic life stories. The pace is fast, the style matter-of-fact, terse, occasionally brutal as is fitting for a thriller. There are enough descriptions to create an atmosphere but not too many to allow for boredom.
Why Uzbekistan? This is certainly not a common setting for a thriller written by an American author. The Opportunists belongs to the genre 'a foreigner stays in an exotic place for some time and turns their experience into a piece of literature'. Alan Drew's novel Gardens of Water (Turkey) and Matt Rees' The Bethlehem Murders (Israel) come to mind.
Yohann De Silva has based his debut novel on the knowledge of Uzbekistan he's won during two years spent in Tashkent as a Foreign Officer for the US State Department. Can a foreigner (who maybe doesn't know the local language) get below the surface in the course of two years? Can a reader who's interested in Uzbekistan and perhaps thinks of going there to visit the famous cities on the Silk Road, Tashkent, Bokhara and Samarkand, learn anything about the Uzbek reality from this book? The political situation, the lives of the people, the landscape?
The internet site neweurasia has printed an interview with Yohann De Silva. I find the interviewer's tone rather aggressive, he supposes that the answers to these questions can only be negative. He misses more depth in the book. "I wanted something a little deeper to tickle my brain buds. I got too much Hollywood and not enough Hopkirk [an author of non-fiction books on Central Asia]."
An arrogant attitude in my opinion. De Silva is certainly right in assuming that few Americans have detailed information about the region. It's only fair to include Europeans, too! Who can find Uzbekistan on a map without dithering? If he had wanted to inform the English speaking world on Uzbekistan's history, culture, politics, he'd written non-fiction. By deciding to write a thriller he had to follow the rules of thriller writing, a balanced book of half information, half thriller would have meant neither fish nor fowl. The background information he has included is enough to whet a reader's appetite who may then go on reading the books by the aforementioned Hopkirk.
When I reviewed Gardens of Water, someone commented, "I would like to read something set in Turkey by an author from that country." Hmm, sounds good on principle. But what if, as is the case with Uzbekistan, there's hardly any literature translated into English? In fact I've only found one translated novel. And even if there were, would we like it, find it readable? The oriental way of story telling is not every Westerner's thing, I for one, don't like the Scheherazade way, it makes me impatient.
Admittedly, a foreigner may only be able to scratch the surface but then they see the way we do. They may notice things, events, people that aren't conspicuous to the insider's eyes. For example, the description of food which can make for pleasurable reading is something that can only be done well by a foreigner in my opinion. A local who eats 'exotic' things every day doesn't find them exotic and thusly not worth mentioning.
To come to a conclusion: The Opportunists is a well-written thriller, which can satisfy readers who love this genre, and an appetizer for people interested in Central Asia.