Alan Furst’s other heroes of World War II (Column: Bookends IX)

By Vikas Datta (09:30) 

Decades after it ended, the Second World War continues to inspire fiction, and there are thousands of works dealing with some of its significant events or weaving them into their own narratives. But only a few aspects have tended to predominate and innumerable others have remained not so well known or not much dwelt on.

Take the war in Europe. The Battle of Britain, the vicious fighting on the Russian Front, the Jewish Holocaust, and the D-Day landings are topics more frequently seen in books (or for that matter, films), but they are certainly not the full story of the desperate conflict across the continent – almost fully occupied by the Germans.

Authors venturing into this largely unexplored territory – especially East Europe and the Balkans or the countries where undeclared shadow wars were on much before WWII began – are not unknown but are not very common, at least in English. Graham Greene and Eric Ambler have been the most illustrious and continuing their tradition is American author Alan Furst with his “Night Soldiers” series.

A Bulgarian defector from the Soviet spy agency, a French director of gangster films, a Hungarian emigre, a Dutch sailor, a Polish army cartographer, a Greek policeman…. Furst’s novels have a number of unusual protagonists. Like life, the novels are also difficult to categorise in one specific genre – historic espionage thrillers with a frequent romance element would be the bare minimum description.

The series – currently comprising 12 books with the 13th due in June – are set in a time-frame stretching from 1933 to 1945: from the year Hitler came to power to the year the war ended. However, only the first – which has given its name to the series – goes on right to the war’s end and most others are set in the run-up to WWII or in its early years and conclude in the same time frame.

This device offers a great advantage. Not only do the works effortlessly and masterfully evoke the tense atmosphere of the time across the great European capitals – London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Budapest, Warsaw, Belgrade, Istanbul – they seem to date from the era itself. With the war on or set to come soon, the relative security in which the protagonists find themselves at the end of the narrative and their ambiguous future fosters this perception.

The series comprises “Night Soldiers” (1988), “Dark Star” (1991), “The Polish Officer” (1995), “The World at Night” (1996), “Red Gold” (1999), “Kingdom of Shadows” (2000), “Blood of Victory” (2003), “Dark Voyage” (2004), “The Foreign Correspondent” (2006), “The Spies of Warsaw” (2008), “Spies of the Balkans” (2010), “Mission to Paris” (2012) and “Midnight in Europe” (due in June).

“Night Soldiers”, as mentioned, is the only one that encompasses the entire time frame fixed by Furst. It covers varied terrain – Khristo Stoianev travels from his small Bulgarian hometown to Moscow as Stalin’s purges are beginning, into the Spanish Civil War, to pre-WWII Paris, and for a nearly fatal mission into Romania before safely ending up in New York.

The rest can be divided into those set in the time before the war began – “Kingdom of Shadows”, “The Foreign Correspondent”, “The Spies of Warsaw” and “Mission to Paris” while all the others deal with its outbreak and early years.

All the books are loosely but subtly connected; protagonists in one may turn up in cameo roles in others and there is a large number of secondary characters in more than one book. A visit to the Brasserie Heininger in Paris is a recurring motif.

“The World at Night” and “Red Gold” are the only ones featuring the same protagonist – French film director Jean Casson. They deal with Casson’s activities for the Resistance in occupied France as Furst skillfully evokes the state of a man cut off from his previous comfortable life and pitched into one entailing dangerous pursuits while having to avoid old friends, leave alone seeking their help.

Sabotaging Romanian barges carrying oil for the Germans, assisting in a coup against a pro-German Yugoslav regime, transporting Polish gold reserves out of their country simultaneously invaded by the Germans and the Russians, spiriting out Jews from Nazi Germany to safety in neutral countries… Furst’s heroes accomplish a lot of desperate ventures but with the sobering realisation that there is no safe homeland or easy life to return to once their mission ends.

Furst is a master at creating a tale of espionage that balances atmosphere and action along with deft characterisation, especially of East Europeans who’ve been badly served in fiction since Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”. If you like thoughtful thrillers, about unsung, unknown people of Nazi-occupied Europe whose commitment and contribution to victory and freedom was no less than the millions of Allied soldiers, Furst is definitely worth a read.

(13.04.2014 – Vikas Datta is a senior assistant editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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