Read for the War Challenge with a Twist 2014 at War Through the Generations
Night Soldiers – Alan Furst, 1988
This was the first of the author’s historical spy novels set in inter-war and WWII Europe. In 1934, Khristo Stoianev, a young Bulgarian whose brother had been stomped to death by fascists, is recruited to an elite spy school by the NKVD. Quick-witted but not extraordinarily so, he finds himself assigned to duty in Spain during its bitter civil war. He realizes he is but a cog in a machine most functional on the settings of “betrayal” and “oppression.” After he defects to Paris and takes to waitering in a posh restaurant, he witnesses the frantic gaiety of the rich and famous. Once the Nazis occupy Paris, he fights with a Resistance group headed by an OSS agent and later experiences other adventures back in Eastern Europe. Khristo, like the other characters a sheer survivor, clings to life and tries to make sense of his and other’s ordeals.
Furst combines the historical, geographic and political context with exciting incidents in highly readable prose. One can tell he’s done his homework because he skillfully explains the political murk leading up to WWII. The stories are true in the sense that he selects a country, learns its political history, and identifies where the spy stories would plausibly arise.
His strengths, I think, lie not so much with stylish sentences but his magic in setting tone and establishing a sense of place. It seems as if he assumes his readers have traveled so when he mentions in passing cities where I lived (Riga) or visited (Jelgava), I feel a frisson of recognition. Some readers may find this tricky or annoying if they’ve never heard of the place, but I find it enchanting. This book is so episodic and full of action that some readers may find “it jumps around” but readers who know the history can follow easily enough.
His characterization is vivid and consoling. His spymasters are mainly bullies and thugs but his Joes (to use a LeCarre-ism) are ordinary people. Furst is well-regarded for his quick sketches of everyday people who pop up and help the hero at great risk to themselves. In this one, for instance, a ten-year-old kid leads the escaping good guys through a labyrinth to relative safety. People perform heroic acts of which they don’t know the importance. These books reassure the reader that they, though ordinary, will rise to the occasion when the chips are down.
"I write entertainment novels," said Furst in an interview. "I write what I call novels of consolation for people who are bright and sophisticated. I expect that my readers have been to Europe, I expect them to have some feeling for a foreign language, I expect them to have read books - there are a lot of people like that! That's my audience."
The Alan Furst Acid Test: If you agree with two or more of the following statements, you’d better not read Alan Furst.
· I don’t like novels whose plots take a lot of pages to set up.
· I don’t like novels whose characters I do not like.
· I don’t like novels that have dark and depressing stories.
· I don’t like novels where too many different things are going on
· I don’t like historical fiction with too much history.
· I don’t like historical fiction with too much fiction.
· I don’t like novels whose characters have long, strange names like Ivan Ivanovich Agayants.
· I don’t like stories that jump around in time and place.
· I don’t like novels with four-letter words.
· I don’t like novels that other people say are great but I think are boring, sad, and I just don’t get.
· I don’t like novels whose author assumes you know stuff.