Blood of

Alan Furst
(Random House)
Ilya Serebin is a writer and a spy, of sorts. He is an international operator --- one who (in this case) operates in and around those strange south European countries we know so little about, think of as hot-beds of political mayhem: Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Turkey --- with their exotic cities: Istanbul, Belgrade, Bucharest, and the port of Odessa, just over the border, there on the Black Sea.

The time is winter 1940 - 1941. At a dinner aboard the Svistov, our writer/hero find himself next to Marie-Galante, who he will bed, lovingly, in the next chapter. Meanwhile, they chat about this and that:

    Half of France was occupied by Germany, Poland enslaved, London in flames. So, all that aside, the carp.

A radio in the dining salon conveys the confusion of the world:

    Sometimes a few minutes of news on Soviet dairy production, now and then a string quartet, from somewhere on the continent. Once a shouting politician, in Serbo-Croatian, who disappeared into crackling static, then a station in Turkey, whining string instruments and a throbbing drum. To Serebin, a pleasant anarchy. Nobody owned the air above the sea.

Serebin is James Bond with imagination. He speaks many languages, is fortyish. Marie-Galante calls him mon ours --- my bear.

Serebin comes to be quite fond of her, "Fragrant as melon, warm as toast." She tells him that he is "quite pretty." But, aside from their passion, renewed again and again over the course of Blood of Victory, the two of them have other things bubbling on the stove. He has been taken on by the English to try to figure out how to cut the supply of Roumanian oil reaching Germany by way of the Danube, which will mean sinking some heavy machinery where the river runs through the Carpathian narrows.

A ticklish business, given the concentration of Nazi operatives, all the upheavals in Southeastern Europe, upheavals which are the history of that region since time immemorial. And with the coming of the Nazis, even more chaos.

Blood of Victory feeds on casual asides. This is one on the city of Belgrade:

    Or so the British cartographers called it. To the local residents it was Beograd, the White City, the capital of Serbia, as it had always been, and not of a place called Yugoslavia, a country which, in 1918, some diplomats made up for them to live in. Still, when that was done, the Serbs were in no shape to object to anything. They'd lost a million and a half people, siding with Britain and France in the Great War, and the Austro-Hungarian army had looted the city. Real, old fashioned, neoclassical looting --- not of this prissy filching of the national art and gold. They took everything. Everything that wasn't hidden and much that was. Local residents were seen in the street wearing curtains, and carpets. And, ten years later, some of them, going up to see friends in Budapest, were served dinner on their own plates.

§     §     §

"Real, old fashioned, neoclassical looting --- not of this prissy filching of the national art and gold." If we are going to give a typical Furst aperçu, let us do it with this one. A hundred or so words on a bitter national tragedy. Writing that is dry, sad, funny --- and learned.

Furst is a godsend for us critics broadsided by so much trash pouring from the publishing houses of America. So much garbage, a sea of diffident writing, scandalously bad plotting, blind-home dumb dialogue --- and then we open this one up and find ourselves in the arms of one who knows best how to tease the English language ... to get to exactly where he wants with it.

This is a writer who knows plotting well enough to glue us to the page from the get-go, who does that terse dialogue we expect in books where you never know if your hero is going to be garroted on the next page.

Dialogue? This guy should be doing Hitchcock movies. This bit, between Serebin and Mademoiselle Dubon, about the man who is funding all his mischief --- his name is Kostyka, he is obscenely rich, with a mistress by the name of Elsa:

    "Have you met the tempestuous Elsa?" she said.

    "I have. But no tempests, at least not while I was around."

    "They occur, I've heard, but Kostyka is smitten, she can do no wrong. And, adding spice to the gossip, there are those who say she is a Russian spy."

    Serebin returned to his chair. What would that mean? "Is she, do you think?"

    "Who knows. A man like Ivan Kostyka serves a life sentence of suspicion, he must assume that everyone he meets is trying to get to him. Sex, love, friendship, gratitude, respect, you name it --- those are the tools of the trade. So, if she is a Soviet agent, he suspects it, he goes to bed with it, and worries about it in the morning."

Ah the plight of the rich, to "serve a life sentence of suspicion;" then, to worry about it "in the morning."

There's fine dialogue, but there is more. Furst is a minimalist, a Matisse of words, one who can paint a scene with a tiny golden brush. Serebin finds himself in the office of the official investigating the bombing of his Russian émigré headquarters, which damn near killed him:

    The desk of Major Iskandar. Born as conqueror's furniture in the days of the Ottoman Empire, a vast mahogany affair with legs like Corinthian columns and ball feet. But time passes, empires drifted into ruin, coffee cups made rings, neglected cigarettes left burn scars, stacks of dossiers appeared and established a small colony, then grew higher and higher as a hostile world hammered on the national door. Or pick the lock.

    Major Iskandar, not very military in a rumpled uniform, had spectacles and a black mustache, with hair and patience thinning as he moved through his forties. He was chinless, with something unhealthy in his complexion, and reminded Serebin of an Armenian poet he'd once known, a great sensualist who died of drinking valerian drops in a sailors' brothel in Rotterdam.

It's that tired bureaucratic office that you and I have been in so many times: the burns, the stains, the pallid officials. But then, here, we get a sudden twist, a mini-drama, cinched in so expertly at the end: the exposition is rolling along like a dream and then poof! A brothel. A sailor's brothel. In Rotterdam. The artist --- dying of an overdose of some wicked herb.

§     §     §

I got caught up in this one about page two, and by page fifty I was rationing myself: we're going to make this one last for a week. But then I blew it. An evening of margaritas, and there it was, on my bed-table, just a peek ... and I threw out the rationing card. Serebin and Marie-Galante and I arrive in Bucharest to see if we could get any information on how best to screw up the oil fields of Roumania or --- at least --- somehow plug the Danube, block petroleum being transshipped to the Nazis. Here we are with our fake passports and fake visas and fake traveling papers, at the Tic Tac Club, with, onstage,

    the Momo Tsiplet nightclub orchestra, five of them, including the oldest cellist in captivity, as well as a tiny violinist, wings of white hair fluffed out above the ears, Rex the drummer, Hoffy on the clarinet, and Momo himself, a Viennese Hungarian in metallic green dinner jacket.

You think I want to abandon ship right here at the Tic Tac Club, just as the three of us are about to stop the oil that's keeping the entire German war machine rolling, affecting the entire outcome of World War II?

--- A. D. Risley
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