Sunday, 3 April 2011

Spies of the Balkans: Alan Furst

God bless Alan Furst, a writer with almost the comforting consistency of PG Wodehouse. Like Wodehouse, Furst sets all his books in a constricted world which has long since passed, and like Wodehouse the narrative is dotted with touchstones which seem to show up in every book, and like Wodehouse the protagonist is usually a bit at sea in a confusing world where other people know more than he does about the things which matter. Finally, like Wodehouse, there's usually at least one benign avuncular figure somewhere who can haul the protagonist's ass out of trouble when nothing else works.

Of course, Wodehouse wrote a world in which the worst consequence was that you might be socially ostracized or married to the wrong gel. Furst's writing about the cluttered arena of espionage and subversion during World War II, and the consequences are ... more serious. So is the writing, for the most part, but the quality of the writing is very high. I started reading Spies of the Balkans a few weeks ago and put it to one side simply because it was more fun than I needed at the time and there were some worse books I wanted to get out of the way. I got back into it this week and read my way through it in little chunks of twenty and thirty pages, which was somehow just perfect.

I've been reading Furst's books since long before he got respectable, and they've become steadily more - well, genteel isn't the right word, but they've got more and more restrained and low key. The structure doesn't change much from one book to the next; a comparative novice finds himself drawn into the undercover struggle against fascism, and four or five vignettes unfold as the novice tries to figure out the rules of the game he's found himself in. His first two novels, Night Soldiers and Dark Star, are more rigorously plotted and unfold over much longer periods; both begin well before the war and run to 1944. Since then his books have been much more loosely plotted and have covered much shorter periods of time, usually a year or less.

Inevitably, talking about them this way makes them seem very samey, but that's not really a problem. Crime novels are very samey, romance novels are very samey. What matters is the execution, and Furst's execution is exemplary. He writes very well, evoking not just the sense of time and place, but the main characters, with a deceptive deftness. Spies of the Balkans isn't by any means the best of his books, but it provides me with a handy place to expound on their general merits and quirks.

For example, there's his Hitchcock cameo gag; in every single book, he finds a way to drag the characters to Brasserie Heininger, and sit them under a mirror with a bullethole in it. In his first book, the main character narrowly avoids being shot dead in that restaurant, and a stray bullet catches the mirror. The mirror has had a cameo in every book since, and just as with Hitchcock's cameos the reader is torn between wondering how he'll pull it off this time and waiting for Furst to get it over with.

It takes quite a bit of beavering to pull it off in Spies of the Balkans, since the action of the book is supposed to be unfolding in the Balkans, and it's one of the few times that I've ever found myself in disagreement with how Furst is going about his work. The strength of what he does is that it's anchored very firmly in the plausible, almost banal world of every day compromise. No-one's given a mission which will save the world; what happens may be a matter of life and death for the people involved, but the big world consequences are credibly small, and consequently all the more gripping to read about. So it doesn't really ring true when Costa Zannis, the main character, a political policeman in Salonika, is the only person British intelligence can think of to get a downed airman out of Paris. It's to Furst's credit that he more or less pulls it off, and that it doesn't feel somehow forced. As I write this and reflect on it, I can see ways to make it more plausible; by the time France has fallen there's not much left of Europe even notionally neutral , and thus not that many places on the continent from which the operation could be launched, but even this isn't spelled out properly. Still, it's a relatively minor quibble in yet another expertly crafted book.

What bears repeating is the simple pleasure of the read itself. Over the course of eleven books so far, Furst has woven together a tapestry of loosely linked works with a distinctive flavour to them which honestly bears comparison to such long form classics as Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin books. They are full of compelling and charming characters, some of which recur from book to book in different roles, and they're so well put together that when the new protagonist trips over some familiar (to the reader) face from earlier, it's like that wonderful feeling you get when you run into a real world friend unexpectedly. I always find myself hoping to run into Janos Polanyi, and am agreeably surprised when he makes a comeback now and again.

Which we may perhaps see in another book; but regardless of who makes a comeback, the mirror in Brasserie Heininger will be there, and so will I.

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