A few months ago, novelist Alan Furst, in one of those New York Times “Writers on Writing” pieces, told how, on a magazine assignment to the Soviet Union back in 1983, he suddenly discovered his subject–what he calls “historical spy novels.” Moscow, he wrote, “was a tense, dark city, all shadows and averted eyes…and its satellite states…were in some sense stuck in 1937.” His previous novels had been acquired by the “National Library of Oblivion.” So he would write about Europe in the war years and the years just preceding them.
His ability to evoke that world is stunning. Through six novels, Furst has created characters and painted a political and social landscape, a dark world of fear and uncertainty, and, behind them, the purges and camps, that’s uncanny in its detail and atmospheric accuracy. It’s a world that, as a German refugee who lived in, and ultimately escaped from, Nazi-occupied Belgium in 1941, I knew only too well, even as a boy of 10. Furst reimagines that world with a texture and depth I’d almost forgotten. Now with Blood of Victory, his seventh, he’s done it again.
Like his other novels, this one roams across a large swath of Europe in the early years of the war, from Istanbul to St. Moritz, from Bucharest and Belgrade to Paris. And like most of the heroes of Furst’s other novels–a French film director, a Jew writing for Pravda, a Hungarian-Parisian entrepreneur–its central character, this time a Russian émigré writer named I.A. Serebin, is a figure who, at the beginning, merely tries to keep his head down, pretend nothing has happened and get along. But events are in the saddle–“This terrible war,” a former lover warns, “it will come for you.”And, sure enough, he’s soon convinced, or perhaps persuades himself, to become an homme engagé.
Serebin’s commitment is to a group of agents run by a defected ex-diplomat and Hungarian count named Janos Polanyi. Polanyi also appears in Furst’s earlier novel Kingdom of Shadows, “a kind of genius,” as one character describes him in this book, “dark as night, but what else would you want?” Polanyi, a bit of a father figure in both novels, works for British intelligence–for the moment on something that London had tried in various ways before: to deprive the Germans of the Romanian oil they badly need for their war machine. The plan now is to blow up and sink heavily loaded barges at a shallow point on the lower Danube and thus block the traffic that delivers the oil. The reason they don’t bomb Romania’s Ploesti oilfields, suggests a cynical Serebin acquaintance (a journalist, of course), is that British interests own a chunk of the place and don’t want it destroyed. (Toward the end of the war–the real war–the Ploesti oilfields were in fact bombed, though not before it became clear that the Russians would get the place afterward.) It all sounds plausible.
The story centers on the business of putting this operation together, particularly in recruiting the necessary help on the ground, mostly from members of a prewar commercial spying operation, the “Operative List of Personalities”–run by a shadowy character named Ivan Kostyka, who “had made millions–had castles, paintings, lawyers, pretty much everything he wanted”–but whose help could be enlisted because he lacked the British knighthood he coveted.