Furst Among Equals
The spy novels of Alan Furst.
Nov 15, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 09 • By JONATHAN FOREMAN
ENTHUSIASTS for the work of Alan Furst have compared reading his books to watching Casablanca for the first time. There is certainly a glamorous, nostalgic quality to his evocations of wartime Paris and Tangier. Moreover, his heroes are reminiscent of the grown-up, masculine heroes of 1940s cinema. But the romantic wistfulness of his novels coexists with a remarkable unsentimentality about politics and political conflict that is unlike anything out of Hollywood.
You can see it in the quotation from Trotsky he uses to open 1988's Night Soldiers (possibly his best novel): "You may not be interested in war, but the war is interested in you." It's a notion as apposite to our time as to the period and place that is Furst's brilliant obsession: Europe between 1933 and 1944.
The protagonists of Furst's superb historical spy novels are, more often than not, diffident, urbane, worldly men, who would prefer not to take sides or get involved in the dirty work of espionage, but who eventually come to take a risky, complicated, and not always successful stand against evil.
And though Furst's fictional but marvelously authentic world is darker than ours--trapped between the Nazis and the Soviets, and on the brink of destruction by global war--his depiction of it expresses a sophisticated but honest moral intelligence of which America could use more. It's a moral intelligence that is in many ways more serious and more honest than those of John Le Carré or Graham Greene, to whom Furst has justly been compared.
For one thing, Furst is starkly aware of the horrors of Stalinism while understanding both the appeal of communism and the compromises necessary for the defeat of the Nazis. But it was his tragic sense of history that made his first three espionage novels, beginning with the magisterial Night Soldiers (about a Bulgarian youth recruited by the NKVD after his brother is kicked to death by local fascists in 1934) so compelling.
Those early books, which contained fascinating details of espionage tradecraft, were built on violent action described with deft economy, lyrical descriptions of place, and astonishingly authentic-seeming evocations of Western and Eastern European worlds that have long since vanished, worlds in which Jews, aristocrats, and forgotten ethnic minorities played a vital role. Though an American, Furst understands the complexity of that vanished Eastern Europe--with its acutely important social, linguistic, and cultural distinctions. Whether describing Paris under occupation or life in a Danubian village, Furst at his best displays an almost Tolstoyan grasp of social texture.
Dark Voyage, his latest, features less espionage technique than most of its predecessors. And the action, for the most part, takes place in a new region for Furst: the colonial ports of the Southern and Western Mediterranean. But though some readers might miss Furst's recreated Balkans and sometimes too-romanticized Paris, Dark Voyage marks a delightful return to form, especially in the width of its canvas and the understated excitement of its action scenes. Really a maritime tale rather than a spy novel, Dark Voyage turns out to be much more satisfying than his last three books: Blood of Victory and the Paris-set pair The World at Night and Red Gold, all three of which suffered from thin, fading storylines.
Furst's heroes are usually cosmopolitans--decent, single, highly sexed multilingual men in their late thirties or early forties, whose travels and languages, background and professions, make them citizens of Europe at a time when such a concept was barely imaginable, and when the differences between Europe's nationalities were much greater than most people today can even imagine.
Eric DeHaan, the hero of Dark Voyage, is a Dutch freighter captain whose career has taken him all around Europe and the Middle East. And like so many of Furst's romantic-pragmatist heroes, he could have been played by Humphrey Bogart.
Soon after the book opens in Tangier in April 1941--described at dusk with typical economy and aplomb as "a white city, and steep; alleys, souks and cafes, their patrons gathering for love and business, as the light faded way"--DeHaan is recruited to take his vessel on intelligence and sabotage missions for the British Royal Navy.
His ship, the Noordeendam (the latest of several rusty tramp steamers to play an important role in Furst's books), is given the identity of the Santa Rosa, which, flying the flag of neutral Spain, is sent around the Mediterranean. Vichy French patrol boats, Italian planes, and German submarines, all of these it must avoid, before being sent on an even more perilous voyage into the Baltic.