Adam LeBor is a writer and journalist, with a special interest in eastern Europe and Israel/Palestine. He contributes to The Times, The Guardian, The Economist, The Jewish Chronicle and Literary Review in Britain, and has written for The Nation and The New York Times in the United States. Adam is the author of five books, which have been published in nine languages. His most recent work: City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa recounts the life stories of six families, three Arab and three Jewish, who live in Jaffa. It has been received with critical acclaim. His 2002 biography of Slobodan Milosevic is now regarded as the standard work on the life of the former Serbian dictator. Hitler's Secret Bankers, his 1997 investigation into the role of Switzerland and Swiss banks in money-laundering for the Nazis, was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. Adam's latest work, Complicity in Evil: The United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide, is an examination of the UN's catastrophic failures in Srebrenica, Rwanda and Darfur, and will be published by Yale University Press this autumn. He writes here about Alan Furst's Dark Star.
Adam LeBor on Dark Star by Alan Furst
Somewhere in Mittel-Europa in the late 1930s, on a train, a boat, or a rickety propeller-powered plane, a man is trying to cross a border. It is night, the hour just before dawn, the sky gun-metal grey. He may be fleeing the Nazis or the Soviets, with a valid passport or a forged one, with secret papers or perhaps just information in his head that others will kill for. Across the frontier a woman waits for him. She has slanting Slavic cheekbones, and her beguiling features are wreathed in smoke as she draws on a cigarette. She pours herself more red wine to still her nerves, and in the background Django Reinhardt plays on a crackly radio.
Welcome to the world of Alan Furst, the master of noir. I first encountered Furst's work, aptly enough, in Budapest in the early 1990s. Those early years after the collapse of Communism, when the crumbling facades of the fine Austro-Hungarian buildings lining the Danube riverbank were still pockmarked with bullet holes and not yet turned into banks, were an apt era to explore the ambivalence of Mittel-Europa on the eve of the Second World War. I was quickly absorbed by Night Soldiers, Furst's longest work. The 'Night Soldiers' are young recruits to the Comintern, idealistic and ready to rebuild the world. The novel ranges from Bulgaria to Moscow and New York, from civil-war Spain to Nazi-occupied Paris. The characters were deftly drawn, the history solid but unobtrusive, and the locations marvellously atmospheric. It was almost like a kind of time-travel as I felt myself being pulled back five decades into a world of ambiguity and danger, where nothing was solid except perhaps the love between a man and a woman.
One evening I met an amiable American called Jim Haynes, a bastion of the 1960s counter-culture, who had helped found the International Times newspaper. He lived in Paris, as then did Alan Furst. I asked him if he knew Alan Furst. It turned out they were friends. Jim promised to ask Alan to send me a copy of his new book, Dark Star. Somewhat to my surprise a couple of weeks later, a shiny hardback arrived in the post, inscribed by the author. From the first paragraph I was hooked.
In the late autumn of 1937, in the steady beat of North Sea rain that comes with dawn in that season, the tramp freighter Nicaea stood at anchor off the Belgian city of Ostend.There were two passengers: 'a senior Comintern official using a Dutch passport with the alias Van Doorn and a foreign correspondent with the newspaper Pravda travelling under his own name, Andre Szara'. In just a few words, Furst had set the scene: of a Europe rushing towards destruction, of intrigue, betrayal and the fate of those caught in the slipstream.
As a journalist based in eastern Europe myself, in a city that breathed history, I was captivated by Szara's odyssey, a journey that unfolded during an era within living memory; and an era whose consequences I felt and experienced every day. Szara, as a citizen of the Soviet Union, has little choice but to cooperate when he is co-opted by the NKVD, forerunner of the KGB, to help with 'a small favour, comrade journalist'. Of course, 'small favours' soon become much larger ones, and before long Szara is running his own espionage network in Paris, flitting between the French capital, Brussels and Berlin. One of Furst's greatest strengths is a powerful sense of place, recreated with skilful literary use of all the senses. Reading Dark Star you can smell the acrid burning of a Gauloise cigarette, feel the rustle of the paper documents that mark the difference between life and death, see the look in a border guard's eyes as he decides whether to grant passage, and feel, too, the backdrop of unease that permeates every encounter.
Furst writes with great economy and subtlety. In the hands of a master, less really is more. In Blood of Victory, one of Furst's most accomplished works, the hero, a Russian called I.A. Serebin, is recruited by a Hungarian spymaster who is actually working for the British. The spymaster, Count Polanyi, is wonderfully drawn, a courteous, elegant aristocrat from an era now vanished, but behind the manners is a core of steel. Serebin attends a dinner party at the Istanbul Yacht Club in 1940. The guests talk of war, of course, and their plans to survive. Serebin says: 'I'm going to be as far away from the fighting as I can possibly get.' Serebin's lover does not believe him, and another guest asks him why he will flee. He replies: 'Because I have seen too many people shot.' Someone else asks: 'In battle?' Serebin replies: 'Afterwards.' Sometimes, one word is enough.
Furst allows, or perhaps leads, the reader to both visualize scenes and make the necessary connections himself, which is one of the great pleasures of skilled espionage fiction. Rarely is anything ever spelt out: instead messages are passed between friends and enemies through events themselves or signals unrecognizable to outsiders, but clearly understood by both sender and receiver. Two young hikers argue, in a crowded carriage on the train on which Szara is travelling, about the quality of different matches. Each holds up his favoured brand, his hand not far from the window, and times the length of the flame. The other passengers look on indulgently: these boys, so earnest, so serious about their camping. Who would not be proud of such upright sons? But perhaps not. A match, at night, is visible from far away. A few minutes later, the train stops in the middle of nowhere. Szara is thrown off the train and is suddenly in extreme danger. There is always romance, too. In Berlin - of course Berlin, the most dangerous city in the world for a Jewish-Soviet-journalist-spy - Szara falls in love with his agent, an actress spying on the Nazis, and she with him. The affair is surely doomed, utterly hopeless. And anyway by what right do two people fall in love as the world prepares to consume itself in flames?
As well as great storytelling, atmosphere and marvellous characters, there are the late 1930s and wartime 1940s as an ever-present backdrop. Furst wears his history and detailed research lightly enough, but his works have a powerful sense of verisimilitude. There is much to be learned here about the Nazis and the Soviets, the price of both believing in a cause and compromising its principles, and some useful snippets of espionage tradecraft. Yes, you think, reading on, it surely was like that. My father, who had served in the Second World War in the RAF and knew something of that era, was one of Alan Furst's greatest fans. Much of the pleasure of a new book came from our discussions afterwards about the plot and characters. My family, too, came from eastern Europe, from Vilnius, and Furst’s perceptive portrayal of the tangled relationship between Jews and Communism still resonates even now.
It's only now, writing this piece, that I realize how much Alan Furst's books have influenced my own. Like Dark Star, my book City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa even begins with a place, a season and a year: 'In Jaffa, in the spring of 1921, a young Jewish woman called Julia Bohbout was planning her wedding.' Julia was a real person, so she could not have met Andre Szara, but I like to think they would have enjoyed sharing a bottle of red wine, while Django Reinhardt played in the background. I know my father would have.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]