Friday, June 18, 2010

A Civilized Work of Espionage: Alan Furst, SPIES OF THE BALKANS

Alan Furst has said that he wants his books to feel as though they were written in the 1930s and 1940s, in the pre-war and early war days in Europe. This willingness to adopt a measured, quietly curious tone and pace deepens his novels and allows the characters to speak from their time, rather than with today's passions and impressions. It takes enormous research and immersion in a place and time that have almost vanished. And Furst does it brilliantly.

So I was eager this week to read SPIES OF THE BALKANS, just released by Random House. As expected, I found myself slowing to the book's generous storytelling rhythm. The novel is broken in to chunks, and the first one, "Dying in Byzantium," opens with what will surely become a classic first sentence: "In autumn, the rains came to Macedonia."

And with these ancient geographic labels, the long reach of history begins to unfold around the disturbing events in the live of Costa Zannis, "a senior police official" dedicated to cleaning up politically charge crises, whether the petty criminality of diplomats or the sweet revenge of the mayor's offended girlfriend, whose attempt to humiliate involved a small firearm and a large target -- the mayor's behind. Zannis clearly enjoys his work. Shielded by his mentor, easily funded, happy with his team, in this autumn of 1940 in the modest city of Salonika in northern Greece (the Balkan mountains range north from here), Zannis's life isn't exactly shallow -- but it has little risk, and the joys are modest and routine. Even his lover, Roxanne, an Englishwoman who matches his taste in sexual hedonism, holds a little distance and leaves Zannis free.

But war is on the horizon: "with much of Europe occupied by Nazi Germany, and Mussolini's armies in Albania, on the Greek frontier, one wasn't sure what came next." For Zannis, a basically kind man with a sense of humor and an equal sense of justice, what comes next are Jews: fleeing for their lives, and desperate to escape the lengthening reach of the Reich. With remarkably little fuss, Zannis lines up support of several kinds, and in a matter of days becomes the mastermind of an established escape route from northern Europe to Turkey, a nation unlikely to be invaded by the Wehrmacht.

Furst conveys more than just the ongoing sense of threat (and of course we readers know that Germany will indeed invade Greece, muting this aspect of the suspense); beyond this wide force of history, Furst paints delicately the balance of life for Greeks, Yugoslavians, Albanians. Here is the Europe that Americans are prone to neglect in a World War II image of Germany, France, England, and Russia -- the smaller nations with ancient back-stories. Reading this novel, I found a first-time longing to see the mountains of these lands, to connect across the globe to other peoples whose lives are shaped by a relationship with a hard land and bitter winters, as much as by the blue summer waters of the seas.

When I finished the book, I was still in that quiet, civilized place where people of good will do their best to help strangers as well as family, and where love is satisfying and tender, rather than erratic and maddening. Small dangers, heart-deep losses, and the predictable approach of the chaos of war are braided with the pleasures of comradeship and making love. It's an old-fashioned story, then -- no ghosts, few horrors, no ghastly unexpected betrayals.

But good. Very good.

How does this measure up against other espionage novels? It's so much quieter, so much more deliberate, that I think it will disappoint some who expect crashing ammunition, vicious Germans, bombs and fire -- all of which are present in SPIES OF WARSAW but modified by time-tested friendships and a sense of honor. The book isn't as dramatic or exotic as many of its peers. But it matches the real lives of the people I've known who lived in Europe at the better edge of life during the 1930s and 1940s. It is, perhaps, La Vie en Rose -- as sweet and sad and valuable as a classical work of art or music.

For another slow, thoughtful look at the book, try Janet Maslin's New York Times review; and for a longer excerpt from the opening chapter, click here.

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