What Are They Reading?
KINGDOM OF SHADOWS: A Novel.
By Alan Furst.
Random House. 272 pp. Paper $11.95.
Kingdom of Shadows, the sixth of Alan Furst's novels of historical espionage fiction, was hard for me to put down--and when I did, I couldn't wait to pick it up again. It has all the elements of a good read: suspenseful intrigue, night trains shunting between European capitals, some shooting and a few deaths, a little romance, a little sex and, above all, great characters. Nicholas Morath, the hero, is a 44-year-old Hungarian émigré living in Paris in 1938, where he is part-owner of a "reasonably prosperous advertising agency." A bon vivant, attractive to women and to men, a decorated war hero, he is also a spy. Called upon by his diplomat uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, to go on secret missions to some of Europe's darkest regions, Morath carries them out with quiet determination, more out of familial obligation than patriotic duty. He gathers information, carries money to associates and smuggles passports and people across borders. His travels take him from the Carpathian Mountains of Czechoslovakia to a jail in Romania, from his native aristocratic circle in Budapest to fascist Vienna. As Europe moves closer to war, Morath's missions become more and more dangerous, and he is forced to deal with people desperate for one reason or another to flee German aggression.
Morath, like all Furst's characters, is drawn with depth and personality. He is romantic without being sentimental; although staunchly antifascist, he acts out of individual rather than nationalistic motives. As his missions become more and more perilous, we see Morath become more ambivalent about what he is doing. His experiences in the First World War color his actions. He knows the futility of war.
Furst mixes real and fictional events, and brings alive that world of chaos and shadows that was Europe in the late 1930s. The reader sees, through Morath's eyes, the foreboding, tension and helplessness as France and Great Britain slide toward war again with Germany.
Paris that September was tense and brooding, on the edge of war, darker than Morath had ever known it. The retour, the return to daily life after the August vacation, was usually a sweet moment in Parisian life, but not that autumn. They came back to the office, the dinner party, the love affair, but Hitler was screaming at them from every newspaper stand and they had no taste for any of it. At Morath's morning café the waiter said, "Let them come and drop their bombs, I'm tired of waiting."
Paris plays a part in all of Furst's novels, but it is the heart of Kingdom of Shadows. Morath always returns to the comfort and relative safety of the city, to his émigré life. Furst's extensive research, and the fact that he lived in Paris for years, allows him to breathe life into the city of the past. Furst takes you from one arrondissement to another, from a quaint cul-de-sac to a grand boulevard, and makes you feel as though you know Paris, too. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the locations, the people, are captured so wonderfully that I found myself transported to another time.