Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Cloak & Dagger #14

Dark Star – Alan Furst

This novel combines a spy story with historical fiction. Readers that have a grounding in the disastrous events that led up to WWII will read with interest Furst’s commentaries on the personalities and diplomacy of the troubled 1930s.

The hero is a Soviet spy under cover as a journalist. He travels in Central Europe and France to run a German-Jewish industrialist who is passing military secrets to the USSR. The hero is also Jewish, from Poland. The story begins in 1937 and goes to June 1940 just after the occupation of France, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The scenes of the hero caught in Poland at the beginning of the war are incredible, as vivid as the Dunkirk scenes in Atonement.

Furst describes the life of case officer, an intelligence officer who recruits secret agents and manages their spying activities. I have no idea if his description captures the authentic experience of the holder of such an unenviable job. But the tension, misgivings, and surprises all feel true.

Readers and critics praise Furst for his ability to convey the atmosphere of Europe between the two world wars.  He has clearly done his homework with history, economics, sociology and cultural studies, especially of Eastern and Balkan Europe.  I lived in Riga, Latvia from 1993 to 1997 so I can vouch for his portrayal of the change of seasons and weather in that part of the world.

He has also captures the feeling of very old places, where people have lived for over a thousand years in ports and market towns. Such strategically important places are full of reminders of the past, both the stuff of happy memories and the events everybody would as soon forget but for the greater distress that forgetting means losing a part of themselves. His characters are European in the sense that they are people who forget the past and disregard the present at their peril, because bad actors and the events they bring about have their way of refusing to be ignored. Not like in other countries where people gaily don’t remember anything, “proof that [they] attribute no importance to the way they are governed (Camus)”

Like Trollope with his Barsetshire Chronicles, Furst also appeals to readers that like recurring characters. Readers of his first acclaimed novel Night Soldiers (1988) will welcome back characters General Bloch, GRU spymaster ; Renate Braun, Comintern agent ; and Maltsaev, NKVD thug. Readers of the The Polish Officer (1995) will recognize Colonel Anton Vyborg, Polish military intelligence – Furst is truly in the corner of the Poles.  Dark Star was the first appearance of Count Janos Polanyi, Hungarian aristocrat and a career diplomat, who appears again in the second Jean Casson novel Kindgom of Shadows (2000).

Almost 500 pages, I thought when I cracked this novel, is too long for a cloak and dagger story. But I found this tale to be a real page-turner. Readers who like serious spy stories by Eric Ambler, John Le Carre, William Haggard, or John Bingham will like this novel.

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