Saturday, 19 June 2010


Reviewing Furst's The Foreign Correspondent for the Spectator (you can find the whole review here) I wrote that in his novels it always seems to be twilight, and by that I meant the sort of twilight that comes when a shadow descends on life, the shadow being the inevitable (especially to us, reading fiction as history) coming of World War II. In this case, the war is about to visit Greece, as Italy launches its ill-fated surprise invasion, but it is the spectre of Germany which winds up changing the life of Costa Zannis, a very special policeman in Salonika, the most cosmopolitan of Greek cities.

Furst's books are always set in such places, way stations for those who come from cultures displaced by wars; Salonika sits close to the Yugoslav and Bulgarian borders, and of course far closer to its old rulers from the Ottoman Empire. Zannis himself, as it happens, has grown up in Paris; his assistant comes from Salonika's large Jewish community. Which makes it interesting as the story starts with the docking of a Turkish tramp freighter which carries a German passenger not mentioned in its manifest. He turns out to have photos of the Rupel Pass, the key to any invasion of Greece from the north. This is a direct reference to Furst's previous book, The Spies Of Warsaw, a signal of what is coming, but though Zannis may suspect the Germans eventually, he cannot realise what is coming for him.

Before long he is drawn into various operations. He begins to help Jews escaping from Germany while they still can, and is drawn into the British intelligence net. He returns to Paris to rescue a valuable British scientist marooned there. He does these things not from coercion, nor from nationalism, but because they are, basically, the right things to do, the human things to do, if one can do them. Although we often compare Furst with Graham Greene, and even better Eric Ambler, and rightly so, it's important to note the basic influence of Hemingway here, the concept of grace under pressure--as the war draws closer, as people's dilemmas become more and more pressing, Zannis acts not because he is forced to, but because he cannot think of a good reason why he should not.

Like most of Furst's protagonists he is a man of the world, not prone to panic, and comfortable surfacing in a strange country and making his way home. Unlike some, in this novel he draws upon deep resources, unlimited budgets of dollars, fortunate family connections in Paris, his network of friendly cops around the Balkans. Thriller fans may wonder where the suspense lies, but Furst isn't into chase scenes, what he does is set up atmosphere and let his characters embrace it. Costas, of course, is short for Constantine, who transformed Byzantium into Constantinople, and who was, in that sense, a prototype man of the world getting business done in dangerous times. There is also a sense of real dichotomy in this this. Furst shows wealthy people in both Germany and Greece; the former are helping friends to escape the Nazis, the latter are plotting their own getaway, should the Germans invade. As ever, money talks...

As does love. After discovering one lover was in fact a British spy (unbeknownst to him, which is his one fallibility) he then falls in love with a woman named Demetria, after the goddess of spring. As with Costa's own name, this one is rife with connotation. Spring of course is a time of rebirth, but in Furst's novels, it is also the time nations launch invasions. The story comes full circle, back to that Turkish tramp steamer, and if the ending seems a bit rushed, and perhaps a bit of what the ending of Casablanca might have been had Ilsa showed up at the railway station in Paris, it also raises the distinct possibility that Zannis could return, in Spies of the Levant perhaps, a novel that could make great things from the character of Smyrna/Izmir, and perhaps pay hommage to Ambler as well.

As I said when reviewing The Foreign Correspondent, Furst provides rather less action in every book. Yet in his moving of Zannis round the chess board of 1941 Europe, what he has done is raise all sorts of questions about the way we react not only to war, but to life. Furst's novels are like small but great films that were never made in the Forties, and like those films, they remind of the different values, the different personal values of the time. And the values that do not change over time. They are compelling, not because of their thriller suspense, but because of their human suspense, and that's why he is one of my absolute favourite writers.

Spies Of The Balkans by Alan Furst
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £18.99, ISBN 9780297858881

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