Saturday, September 17, 2005

Alan Furst

Alan Furst writes elegant historical espionage novels. By "historical," I mean that Furst writes within the the time and genre of ideologically understandable amateur espionage. He recreates the either-or of World War II, yet his plots remind his reader of all the complex choices within such an either-or: to get involved actively rather than survive and dissent, to become an anti-fascist agent, with a loss of autonomy, or escort some few refugees to safety. By "elegant," I mean that the plots are symmetrical, spare, and unsentimental and that the details of character are revealed in sparse sketches (here, an after-hours feast for expatriots hosted by a Russian chef in a posh Parisian bistro); and of course, I also mean by "elegant" that the "historical" dilemmas above described are never insisted upon, never become histrionic.

In Furst's 2002 Blood of Victory, the leftist Russian expat writer Ilya Serebin is recruited in Paris by the British government to serve in the anti-Nazi effort. Serebin desperately wants to defeat the fascists, yet the job to which he is assigned is very abstract and very dangerous: he is to revive an old, commercial-focussed Balkan intelligence network in the hopes of organizing an attack on the Romanian oilfields. The idea is that since the German war-machine relies on oil for its war-factories, destroying the Romanian oilfields (remember, our contemporary MidEast and Caucasian oilfields had not yet been developed) would slow down the German military effort. One of the central ironies in this careful novel takes shape between the abstraction of this goal and the brutally immediate sacrifices that Serebin must suffer.

I was very impressed by this novel: it evoked the atmosphere and dilemmas of a period while focussing on the choices and needs of vivid individuals. And no matter how much or how little one has heard of British efforts to undermine oil production in the East, one will wonder about--and be worried about--the fate of the principle characters in their goals.

[Edited slightly]

4 Comments:

Blogger rilkefan:

Balkin -> Balkan?

What's a symmetrical plot?

9/19/2005 12:06:00 AM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Thanks for correcting that spelling mistake--I'd try to pretend it was a typo, but it was really just stupidity.

I'm also tempted to walk back from the word "symmetrical" and suggest instead "balanced," but here I want to stand by my guns.

The majority of the chapters were the same length; longer setpieces came at regular intervals and seemed to have counterparts in the different locations of the novel. The novel carefully closed down alternative options; paths not chosen or made impossible were illustrated in little dead-end vignettes. There's also a curiously static quality to this action adventure that helps one appreciate the novel's formal patterning.

And on the most crass level, the novel's action opens and closes with the ambitions to a British knighthood of a Balkan businessman, Ivan Kostyka, who once happened to have set up a commercial intelligence network. So much of the misery that the protagonists endure seem contained within Kostyka's gift-reward action-sequence , and by extension, the British government's too-too-abstract strategic vision.

Anyway, perhaps an imprecise word-choice for a portmanteau of qualities...

9/19/2005 11:53:00 AM  
Blogger rilkefan:

Ah. Balance and symmetry are I guess classical values, so maybe that's another reasonable choice.

9/19/2005 03:29:00 PM  
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