One reader wrote:
Regarding your review of An Exchange of Hostages, I feel that Ms. Mathews has attempted to place her protagonist in a position in which suicide or overt insubordination would result in greater harm to the "souls" that he purports to hold dear. If this is the case, Andrej will continue to commit murders and torture that injures his immediate victims and his own psyche until he acquires sufficient power to effect some change in the System.
The classic science fiction novel would have some hero arise and overthrow the system. I don't believe in such things and I don't expect that from a good writer. Its pretty clear that Koscuisko is part of the well oiled machinery of oppression which has been quite successful in stamping out any rebellion. I don't know of any case where a totalitarian system has been overthrown by a single person, any more than Lenin personally overthrew the Czar. Historic forces were at work and Lenin rode the wave of change. A similar wave eventually swept out the Soviet Union (despite what the Republicans in the United States would like to believe). Ironically, this is a somewhat Marxist view of history.
When confronted with an evil system, people are forced to decide whether they will collaborate. A person who puts a gun to your head has no more power than you are willing to give them. There is always a choice. This does not mean that we have the courage to make the choice not to collaborate. And it all depends what forces are brought to bear.
There were two things I found disturbing about "An Exchange of Hostages". The first is the issue mentioned above: Koscuisko takes part in a horrible system. He has a choice, even if that choice is death. He never seems to wrestle with this choice, he just goes forward, although sometimes with the aid of drink and drugs.
The second issue I find disturbing in the book is the issue of sadism. Someone who reviewed the book on amazon.com compared it to S&M porn.
I was in high school in the early 1970s when there were a lot of totalitarian regimes (e.g., South America and Iran). These regimes all used torture and there were a number of articles on them in The New York Review of Books. One would like to think that the torturers were psychopaths - people not like us. But many of them were just random people. Afterward some of them justified what they did by stating that if they did not torture, they would be shot. And this could be true. Perhaps their families would have been "disappeared" as well. But I also think that what they did also comes from a darkness that lives in most human souls. This vicarious enjoyment of pain is something that Ms. Mathews dealt with directly, but without comment.
Many people who are not evil collaborate with totalitarian regimes. But there are also people who refuse to collaborate and in many cases they are killed. It all depends on what you can live with. The sadism in Ms. Mathews book would have been more palatable if there was some reflection on these issues. But there was none. Perhaps all these issues will be dealt with in the second or third book. But I just don't have the stomach to wade through another of her books. I have a huge pile of unread books and I'll read one of those instead. After reading this book, I wondered who Ms. Matthews was and how she come to write this book. How does she view it? Did her "army brat" upbringing blind her to the issues of choice in the face of authority? Did the vivid descriptions of sadism come from her own fantasies? An Exchange of Hostages is a very dark work which strongly reminds me of Kafka's The Penal Colony.
The United States is a super power that exits physically in its own global hemisphere. Our history, compared to that of Europe, is also shallow. Few people in the United States have read histories of the Soviet Union under Stalin or even of Germany under the Nazis, much less the past and present history of the US involvement in South America. In the modern United States there are few places with a shallower grasp of history than in Hollywood and, in fact, one person who disliked my review was, as far as I can tell, an independent producer with a Hollywood production company.
..your comment about there being very little to redeem Andrej Kosciusko is proof positive that you just don't get it. This novel is set in a world, run by a strict beyond belief JUDICIAL SYSTEM and the author makes it absolutely clear that in this particular world, ANY rebellion quickly gets you summarily convicted and indentured as a slave for the better part of your life. Andrej simply cannot change the world he's in, nor can he change the circumstances that have led him the position he's required to fill, however...
This is an at once heartbreaking, heartwarming, terrifying, frustrating, taut, masterpiece which, while being character driven, also manages to be action packed as well. The conflict within Andrej, how he manages to bear up through this horrifying life that's been thrust upon him, and worse, his bitter and to me, as the reader, frighteningly palpable self-loathing over the pleasure he finds himself taking in his work, is what makes the book the colossal success at evocative fiction that it is.
In response to this, there is little to say that I have not said above and in the review. However, this writer had a different, uniquely Hollywood, twist. Not only am I totally wrong about this book, but to show how wrong I am, he is going to "option the novel, package it into a movie, and make it into the blockbuster it deserves to be", viewed by millions. I can imagine the meeting when the movie synopsis is presented to the studio executives:
"Well, its like The Story of O meets Midnight Express, except that its in a setting like Alien Resurrection... The hero is this guy Andrej, who is a torturer, but see he's forced to do the terrible stuff he does... It's a role for someone like Edward Norton, intense yet full of conflict."
"Ah, yeah. We'll give you a call if we decide to green light the movie. Don't let the door hit you on the way out, kid."
If by some wild chance the book were actually made into a movie, imagine the general reaction to our hero, Andrej, torturing his victims to death. It would quicly be labeled a Holywood snuff film. Movies like The Deer Hunter (or Rambo, for that matter) had some pretty horrible torture scenes, but the torturers were not the heros. They all ended up dead for their sins. When people go to the movies, they want fantasy. They don't want to know about how their tax dollars have been used to train torturers. And they certainly don't want to see a demented science fiction file featuring a hero who kills in ways that would make them vomit.
Back to the review of An Exchange of Hostages