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Books June 2006

A Man of Action

His narration may be clunky and his sex scenes almost comical, but Alan Furst’s turns of plot can leave a reader breathless

Readers who have never heard of Alan Furst may be surprised to learn that historical spy fiction is still being written at all. After enjoying one final smash with Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle (1978), the genre was gradually displaced from best-seller lists by the hi-tech thrillers of Tom Clancy et al. One by one the swastikas disappeared from airport book racks, and by the late 1980s, Follett had taken to writing about cathedrals instead. It was then, of all times, that Furst wrote Night Soldiers (1988), a spy novel about the Nazi-Soviet conflict. Departing from the standard screw-tightening plot, he sent his Bulgarian hero back and forth across Europe on a series of almost self-contained adventures. Reviewers were quick to compare Furst to John le Carré, but the two have little in common. Le Carré treats his readers like experienced fellow agents; we spend the first part of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963)scrambling to figure out what on earth he’s talking about. Furst’s work seems too “on the nose” by comparison. In Night Soldiers, for example, someone throws gasoline and a torch inside a café and nails the door shut, whereupon the occupants hurl themselves against it—and the narrator hastens to inform us that “the intention was to burn them to death.” Even the least ambiguous gestures are explained in italics. “[He] pointed with an index finger, and shook it firmly twice … Meaning Naughty boy, see what happens when you curse your betters?” Foreign words come with a helpful translation. “Todavía?’ Still? Siempre!’ Always!” I would have wrongly guessed that todavía” means something like “the whole road,” but that’s beside the point; these asides play havoc on a reader’s wish fulfillment. A certain enigmatic quality, even the occasional feeling of being out of one’s depth, is necessary if a spy novel is not to feel like a boys’ adventure.

This is not to say that Furst’s prose is a smooth and easy read. The punctuation is exasperating: “She was, she said, Levantine, of Greek origin, and, hair, eyes, and spirit, dark in every way … ‘I did have a few, suitors, for a time … ’” (Dark Voyage, 2004) Awkward formulations routinely pull the reader up short:

In 1908 … the Turks withdrew, leaving alas, only a minor cultural legacy: bastinado, the whipping of bare feet; pederasty, the notion of sheep-herding mountain youths agitated even the pashas’ burned-out lusts; and the bribery of all high persons as a matter of natural law. The first two faded quickly from life in Vidin, though the latter, of course, remained. The local wise men would have been astonished to discover people who did not know that greed far exceeded sadism and lechery in the succession of human vice. (Night Soldiers)

One could perhaps argue that there were plenty of young shepherds where the pashas came from, and that sadism and lechery have never been outlasted by greed or anything else. More to the point, “agitated” is the wrong tense, “bribery” should be “venality,” and “exceeded … in the succession of” is gibberish. On the very next page is the formulation “Some had the straight black hair of the Asian steppe, others the blue eyes of the Russo-Slav,” by which time one starts to wonder how the bare feet of the North American copy editor might look after a little old-time Turkish justice. Furst’s erotic passages are especially clumsy. Some aim for “continental” bawdiness, others for Bogartesque melancholy, but either way, the Europeans tend to come off as visitors from another planet: “She chose him openly. Studied him, considered the genetics, the dialectics, the inevitability of history, then let her blue-veined breasts tumble out of her shirt before his widening eyes.” “Wound around each other like vines, they climbed the stairs together.” “Maybe the name she told him was a lie and maybe he did the same thing, but three in the morning found them … hugging like long lost lovers, riding each other’s bottoms through the night.”

Furst tends to do better in scenes of flight and pursuit. The Polish Officer (1995), his most exciting novel by far, has a page where a girl is trying to get on a moving train. (“Somebody yelled, ‘Save her, save her,’ like a chant, and others took up the cry.”) Upon finishing it, readers may find that they have been holding their breath. Still, it was not until Kingdom of Shadows (2000), the tale of a Hungarian advertising-executive-turned-spy, that Furst became as well known at home as he had always been in Britain. In interviews, he has suggested that 9/11 may have made Americans keener to read stories about ordinary men answering a call to defend their country. Perhaps, but stories about ordinary Europeans? (In none of his books is the central character an American.) My guess is that Furst’s popularity derives more from the growing fascination with World War II, a fascination that may have something to do with an aversion to globalization. His characters are constantly moving across militarized borders, showcasing the colorful checkerboard of distinct polities that Europe used to be. Arriving in Belgium from Greece, the hero of Dark Star (1991) sojourns in Ostend, Antwerp, and Paris before traveling to Czechoslovakia. And those are just the first twenty pages.

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