Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Spies of the Balkans

A few books later, I read Alan Furst's Spies of the Balkans. This presented a contrast to Gilmore’s book in several ways:  an older, established writer as opposed to a young emerging one. anemone who writes consciously as a genre writer as opposed to a high-literary novelist; and, perhaps most crucially, a setting not that far away--just forty years back from Gilmore’s--but one which mandated s a very different approach to detail. Giving away the plots of Furst's spy novel would be even less productive than with Gilmore’s .What I want to think about here is how his approach to detail is both similar and different. Gilmore is writing about a past time, but, most immediately, a similar place: she assumes most of her readers will be culturally savvy residents of the Northeast Corridor, with the faraway reader, who happens to come into contact with the book, finding it more exotic but perhaps needing more help to navigate the cultural patterns. For Furst, both time and place are different he not only writes novels of the World War II era, but novels of that era without English-speaking protagonists: his point of view characters have ranged from the French to the Polish to, in this book, the Greek. Not only does Furst give the reader a mixture of the familiar and alien--they may know that Germany invaded Greece but have forgotten that Greece at the time was under the quasi-Fascist dictatorship of Ion Metaxas, they may know generally what clothes people wore and what customs the practiced in the 1940s, but not known a Greek police officer would drive a Skoda 420 car or smoke a Papastratos No. 1 cigarette--but he has to let the details do the vast majority of the work. Whereas Gilmore can assume a background--one that can be adjusted to fit the experience of relevant generations of readers--even the oldest of Furst's readers would know World War II as foot soldiers and not grand strategies, and so Furst is in a sense engaged in what Peter Carey (whose latest, Parrot and Olivier, I highly recommend),  has called 'writing science fiction of the past".
    Gilmore is able to have her details and plot dovetail; they generally complement, vouchsafe one another. Furst cannot do this; if he did, there would be no action, and his books would simply be catalogues of lost time. That they are not is due to his ability to render suspense and action, but this has to run counter to the detail; as a writer Furst zigzags, diligently constructing detail with one hand, cross-cutting against it with suspense and action with another. This to-and-fro means his novels are fascinating not just on the narrative but on the architectural level, and why they are so reread able.
Intriguingly; Furst's books, like Gilmore’s novel, are, in many ways, post-1989 fiction; they are fiction rendered conceptually possible by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Gilmore’s sense that Communism is an utterly ludicrous option would not have seemed so apparent to the literati before then (see my previous post on the deutero-Katyn tragedy of last April, which in a sense was an occasion for the first Katyn tragedy to be fully ventilated in the Western press for the first time). And Furst's detailed exploration of the small countries of central/eastern Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s would have seemed beside the point before 1989, not so much, for the most part, out of pro-Communist prejudice but because of a sense that the countries involved were simply not 'players' on the international power scene. After 1989 this changed; and the map of wartime Europe Furst provides has some features, such as an independent Slovakia, that would mirror today’s.
     Yet his map is not just of the wartime Balkans as such, but of an escape route through them--before Yugoslavia and Greece were in the war, one could escape from German-occupied Austria through pro-German but neutral Hungary down through Serbia and to the Aegean at Salonika--and this calls to mind an even more important facet of Furst's books: they are often either literally about neutral countries in wartime or people in neutral situations who are jostled by events into having to commit. Even amid total war, there is neutrality some countries (Sweden, m Portugal, Switzerland, Ireland) stayed neutral for all of the war or (Turkey) for most of it; and Furst is superb at working out with an almost mathematical precision how people could take advantage of these suspended neutralities to navigate to and for, in covert service to one side or another or trying to evade both on their personal odysseys. Furst thus sees wartime through a second, reflective level, and it is this, as much as in his understatement and ability to skillfully evoke a fully rendered scene with a few storks, that the profound influence of Anthony Powell is apparent. Furst has spoken of his admiration for Powell often and made a bravura and generous contribution to last year’s Powell conference in Washington, DC, which I co-convened. Like Powell, Furst can treat the war as, on the one hand, an unabashed struggle of good versus evil, and, on the other, a tableau with all sorts of interstices, contradictions, banalities. perhaps Furst’s most impressive display of this was in Dark Voyage where the sheer skill of plotting a trajectory of a neutral ship from the Mediterranean to the Baltic required as much ingenuity as the plot itself. This sort of cerebral dobbing of the books' action in its mental planning has all of Powell's nuance and precision. Powell himself was also keenly interested in the lesser-known countries of Europe during the war, and Furst's cycle in many ways is the latter-day fruition of this interest.
     Greece and adjoining areas are new territory for Furst, but he handles them well. Where will he go next?  Albania, though interesting, would be almost too recondite, The Baltics? he has touched on them in Dark Voyage but never a full-scale treatment. Tere öhtust, as they would say in Tallinn. 

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