Night Soldiers
Alan Furst
Read by
George Guidall

(Recorded Books Unabridged)
Khristo comes from Vidin, a small Bulgarian town on the Danube. We meet him in 1935 as the newly formed brigade of local Nazis is kicking his brother to death in the street ... because he laughed at one of their silly parades.

Khristo immediately gets recruited by the local Communist, goes off to Moscow, learns to be a spy and a traitor and an adept --- in a word, an integral part of the Russian Secret Service, the NKVD.

They ship him off to Tarragona, then to Madrid, to represent the Stalinist spy operations in the Spanish Civil War. Later, after the Loyalist forces are defeated, he goes into hiding as a waiter in Paris, then moves on as a part of the anti-Nazi underground --- the maquis --- in the south of France, in Cambras, near the Vosges Mountains.

Furst has always offered a panoramic set for his novelistic backgrounds: icy Moscow, the mountains of France, the hill country of Spain, the wilderness of Poland, Mitteleuropa, food and wine and love, love, love in Paris. It's not only panoramic, though; it is, often paranoiac: You cannot hide.

During his time in Paris, Khristo hopes that no one knows where he is. But they know. They always do. One day, as he is out working in a fancy restaurant, they kidnap his funny, agile lover, Aleksandra. He knows what has happened only because he finds the gouges left behind by her fingernails on the doorjamb leading out of the tiny apartment. He knows that he has not only been dispossessed of a love, but that they know all his secrets, know where he is, know who he loves, know how to reach him.

Ah, the great they. The great secret spring that makes a spy novel work. Every character, every locale, every passing car, every passer-by, every lover. They all may be a threat. One must always be looking over one's shoulder, one must never let down one's guard.

§     §     §

Furst has made a specialty of the bitterly contested wars that have raged over time between Russia and Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, Croatia and Bosnia, Yugoslavia and Macedonia, into the obscure corners of that world: Syrmia, Bessarabia, Carpathia.

His novels are heavily peopled with wise, all-too-wise, all-too-brutal secret police, along with brutal Communists, Marlowe-like heros, fiendish Turks, astute peasants, vile Fascists, wise aristocrats, powerful women ... always with a dollop of the American presence: the Americans usually fresh and optimistic, usually foolish.

Earlier, in the pages of RALPH, we have reviewed other Furst novels --- Kingdom of Shadows, Blood of Victory, Red Gold. We have spoken highly of them all. Night Soldiers is somewhat different, being not only longer, but the earliest of this series, having been published in 1988. It may be longer than most, but we found ourselves, as we listened to this tape, not wanting it to end.

Thus Furst and I have been together now, going to and from work, for ten days, 18-½ hours, 13 cassettes. He tells a dandy story. I mean dandy, but not the walking stick, fancy-dress dandy.

No, this dandy grabs you by the scruff of the neck and won't let go until you, and it, done with each other, are exhausted. I arrive at my job, don't want to leave the car until they blow up the hotel, or until the beat-up old truck of the French partisans can make it down the mountain road, out of the hands of the SS, or until the very unlikely, very American girl meets up with Khristo, wonders about sending a letter home: "Hi, Mom. I'm in Madrid, participating in the Spanish Civil War. Yesterday I machine-gunned a German Messerschmidt and wounded the fighter pilot. Wish you were here."

A Bulgarian tells of what it is like to grow up in the shadow of Russia: "There is an old saying: An elephant can fuck an ant. With enough spit.'" Or from the Turks, "As it is written, so it will be." Or this on the Danube River, a hymn to the history (and the splintering) of Eastern Europe:

    This was the Czech Dunaj; it would be the Hungarian Duna in a few miles, then the Dunay in Yugoslavian Serbia, the Dunârea in Romania, then the Dunaj again, in Bulgaria, but it was all the same river, the Danube. He recognized this water, the rhythm of its slow, heavy course, the way it gathered the night's darkness and ran black.

§     §     §

Furst is literate and astonishingly knowledgeable about Central Europe --- its history, customs, music, railroads, ships, hotels, love, language, feuds ... and the ghoulish realities of the WWII period. Indeed, sometimes the cynicism of the writing becomes unbearable: "They were getting ready to die in Bratislava and it had made them very serious..."

And then, weaving through the fabric of these tales like a black thread, there are the spy and terror systems: the Russian NKVD the German SS, the Spanish SIN, the American OSS, the British MI6. After another murder of another Furst character, one I've grown quite fond of, I stop the tape and work on my driving for a bit.

But I'm an addict, a forgiving one, so in a while I go back to get mesmerized again, just outside Tarrogona, or in a drunken fest in decadent Paris, or a tiny cell in Santé prison, or on a tugboat on the Danube, in the midst of the retreating Germans, surrounded by the advancing Russians, explosions everywhere, bodies littering the river, and I get home, still don't want to get out of the car because I'll have to turn it off, be forced to wait for awhile to hear the rest of it.

Having read it but never having heard it read aloud, I would never have imagined Night Soldiers could translate into a vocal drama of such power. The reader in this version out of Recorded Books is an actor named George Guidall. All the accents --- at least those that I know (I am a little weak on Russian, Turkish, Bulgarian, Polish, Romanian, and Czech) --- are perfect. The intonation is exact. The dialogue superb. The narrative will knock you off your seat.

--- Carlos Amantea
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