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.
Still it is Serebin, accompanied by his fellow agent and lover, Marie-Galante, who has to do most of the dirty work. And since much of it has to be done in Bucharest, where Ion Antonescu’s collaborationist government, with the help of the Germans, is trying to put down an uprising from the Iron Guard (which believes that Antonescu’s regime is not fascist enough), it gets to be tough duty. No one is quite sure who’s a collaborator with whom, who is a friend and who an informer, who will be in charge after the next deadly bureaucratic battle. Thus, no certainty which of today’s friends will remain one.
This, of course, is a leitmotif of all of Furst’s novels and, indeed, of Europe itself in the years between 1914 and 1945. You know almost at once that the helpful French petroleum engineer is really “a good little Vichy fascist.” And eventually you learn that the Vichy diplomat is really “one of us.” (One Paris hotel desk clerk warns Serebin that the cops are waiting for him upstairs as the other reaches for the phone to report him.) But who are the dark figures on that Paris street–the secret police? and if so, from what organization? or are they just muggers? Can the French Communist underground make common cause with MI6, the British intelligence service? Before the revolution, did Stalin collaborate with the czarist secret police? How long can the occupying Wehrmacht’s diplomatic agenda be exploited before it becomes the Gestapo’s iron fist? Sometimes things happen (the explosion, for example, of a booby-trapped basket of eggplants in an Istanbul émigré office–nice touch, that) that are never really explained. In that world, there were always loose ends.
In Furst’s 1991 novel Dark Star, which has just been issued in paperback, there is the long reach, complete with Trotsky-style overseas assassinations, of the extended struggle for control of the NKVD between the old intellectual Bolsheviks, Jews many of them, and Lavrenti Beria’s Georgians. In Berlin an intelligence officer of the German foreign ministry uses a frightened Jewish businessman to feed accurate military information (on airplane production) to the Russians to lay the groundwork for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. But before it gets to the Russians, Dark Star‘s hero is also prompted by an elegant Baron Rothschild-style millionaire to deliver the intelligence to the British in return for a few thousand extra immigration visas to Palestine for European Jews. Plots within plots.
Furst’s greatest forte is not plot, however, but elegant writing and a wonderfully wrought atmosphere and details of the world he evokes: the 1930s émigrés in prewar Paris or Istanbul or Amsterdam who are just waiting for who knows what. There are curfews and ration stamps; the Nazi thugs in Berlin in the terror of Kristallnacht; the Parisian haut monde trying to pretend that nothing is wrong, the Germans have come before, someone says, and each time they left; the hoped-for route of escape in the early years of occupation (which also was my own) from Holland or Belgium into occupied France, then across the line of demarcation into Vichy France, then into Spain and Portugal; the frequent security stops and demands for identity cards, on the street, at the Metro entrances and, of course, for travel documents at every border and at the countless railroad checkpoints in between that every traveler knew only too well; the people in Paris who “reeked of flight”; the pressure to collaborate from Russians or Germans or, in some cases, from people whose real identity might not be known at all; the midnight footsteps on the stairs or in the corridor; the loud knock on the door. Some people are detained; others just vanish. “This is my fourth time along this road,” says an old Polish Jew fleeing the Nazi invasion in 1939. “In 1905 we went west to escape the pogroms, in 1916 east, running away from the Germans, then in 1920, west, with the Bolsheviks chasing us. So here we are again.”
In his New York Times piece, Furst wrote, correctly, that in a 350-page book it is hard not to make some mistakes, despite all the historical research, and indeed he does make them. German planes, for example, had swastikas on their tails, but not, as he says, on their wings, which were marked by a black cross edged in white. The Messerschmitt 109 (in his 1988 novel Night Soldiers, recently also issued as a paperback) was a fighter plane, not a bomber. But those can be forgiven. What bothers me is Furst’s insistence on measuring things in feet, miles and Fahrenheit, an Americanization that intrudes on the atmosphere and, in any case, isn’t necessary.
Furst has frequently been compared to Eric Ambler and Graham Greene: For old Ambler (or Greene) junkies he’s a particularly welcome find. Indeed, the resemblance is sometimes arresting. Here’s the opening of Blood of Victory:
On 24 November, 1940, the first light of dawn found the Bulgarian ore freighter Svistov pounding through the Black Sea swells, a long night’s journey from Odessa and bound for Istanbul. The writer I.A. Serebin, sleepless as always, left his cabin and stood at the rail, searched the horizon for a sign of the Turkish coast, found only a blood red streak in the eastern sky.
And here’s the opening of Ambler’s Journey Into Fear (1940):
The steamer, Sestri Levante, stood high above the dockside, and the watery sleet, carried on the wind blustering down from the Black Sea, had drenched even the small shelter deck. In the after well the Turkish stevedores, with sacking tied around their shoulders, were still loading cargo.
Graham saw the steward carry his suit-case through a door marked PASSEGGIERI, and turned aside to see if the two men who had shaken hands with him…were still there.
In Journey Into Fear there’s an important character, a Turkish police officer named Colonel Haki. Blood of Victory has a Turkish police officer, a distinctly minor character, named Major Iskandar. (Another unconscious tribute to the old master?) Like Ambler, Furst loves scenes on ships and trains. They were central to those years of emigration and flight–wild drives through pouring rain along treacherous Carpathian roads or dodging the apparat (in Dark Star) in a stolen NKVD car through occupied Poland, or pursuit by cops of one sort or another through the back streets of Paris.
Almost inevitably (contra Ambler), there is also the love story in Furst, love that’s often, though not always, fleeting and doomed, the thematic counterpoint to a dark time when people “held on to each other for a long time for hope, for warmth in a cold world, because at least they weren’t alone, and it would have been bad luck not to.”Rick and Ilsa, of course, in Casablanca. But in the end, these are not just war stories, or spy stories; they’re rich, absorbing historical/political novels about a terrible era that made heroes of some, traitors and cowards (or Luftmenschen) of others and, for many, some uncertain compromise between them. They’re addictive page-turners, fast-moving and searching at the same time, but a good deal more as well. Great stuff.