Night Soldiers

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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My father first introduced me to Alan Furst’s moody, evocative novels of interwar Europe. I devoured the first of them, Night Soldiers (1990), three years ago, and since then have held myself to a careful ration, not reading too many too fast, for fear of running out.

After Night Soldiers, I turned to Dark Star (1992 and my favorite to date), then The Polish Officer (1994) The World at Night (1996 – and the weakest of the group), and just now Kingdom of Shadows (2001).

Every one of these except Night Soldiers I have listened to as an audiobook, all of them narrated by the same reader, George Guidall. The Furst-Guidall combination is absolutely the most inspired of any author-reader combination on my iTunes list, and that is saying something.

Guidall’s reading is so powerfully in tune with Furst’s vision that he makes music even of Furst’s flaws as a writer. One of those flaws, for example, is Furst’s very idiosyncratic punctuation, which sprinkles commas as freely as the Hungarian protagonists of Kingdom of Shadows sprinkle paprika. Read by Guidall, however, those commas do not interrupt the flow of thought as they do on the page. Instead, they introduce a melancholy, wistful, yearning note as the voice trails from half-thought to half-thought, building to partially articulated conclusions ….

Furst’s graver fault, his weak characterization, is also ameliorated by Guidall’s rendition. It is not always easy to tell Furst’s protagonists from each other. Yes, one is a Bulgarian villager, the next a prominent Soviet Jewish journalist, the third – well – a Polish officer, and so on. But really as literary characters they are all basically very much alike. Their minds work the same way, they have the same patterns of speech, they react in similar ways to similar events.

An interview with Furst appened to Kingdom of Shadows casts inadvertent light on the problem: Furst explains that he begins work on a new book by picking a country. Then he looks for a plot to dramatize that country’s situation, which in turn leads him to a character. Result: characters with elaborately detailed biographies, but remarkably similar interior lives.

But that’s OK! Because really the problem presented by the novels is the same problem: How would a decent man respond to the rise of fascism around him? And with Guidall’s soothing voice sounding in the ear, the similarities become less disappointing, because we are drawn into the story ourselves, until we are asking what we ourselves would do – and of course we are always the same.

In action and situation, however, the men differ radically – and it is in those descriptions that Furst excels to the point of genius. He conjures up a period in all its details, grand and petty (down to the smell of horse fat in which a working class Belgian bar cooks its frites).

These details stun us all the more because Furst cares so much about the war’s most neglected participants and victimes: the small peoples of the borderlands between Germany and Russia. Dark Star and The Polish Officer contain some of the most vivid descriptions I have ever read of the invasions of Poland in September 1939 – “invasions” plural, because Furst duly memorializes the Soviet invasion from the east.

Kingdom of Shadows is the story of Nicholas Morath, an aristocratic Hungarian, a distinguished cavalry officer in the First World War, now living in Paris. His uncle, a diplomat-spymaster, spins schemes to avert the looming war – or, if that should prove impossible, at least to ensure that Hungary should be spared to the maximum degree possible. Nicholas gets drawn into these schemes, to increasing personal danger.

One of those schemes has special contemporary relevance. Nicholas finds himself in the Sudetenland on the eve of the Munich sellout of 1938. This was the mountanious region of northwestern Czechoslovakia heavily fortified against German invasion – but also home to a restive, pro-Nazi German minority. At Munich on September 29, 1938, Neville Chamberlain would agree to a deal surrendering the Sudetenland to Hitler.

What Furst conveys with really chilling effect is the ability of the Czech Germans very genuinely to perceive themselves as victims of oppression while waging a vicious campaign of terror against their neighbors. Even more chilling: the readiness of many in the West to accept this self-perception – because so long as Westerners could persuade themselves that the Sudeten Germans were somehow victimized, they could avoid justify abandoning the Czechs. Recognizing the truth would require some kind of action – and action was too frightening and too dangerous.

It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s meant to.

A marvelous pleasure of a book. I enjoyed it so much that I’m breaking my own rule, and immediately loading another Furst onto my iPod to replace it. After that, I’m gritting my teeth and taking on Thomas Hardy – a writer I’ve dreaded since Tess of the d’Urbervilles was inflicted on me by an over-optimistic high school teacher back in 1978. I rediscovered Hardy’s poetry two summers ago and loved it, so I’ve resolved to give the novelist another chance. Maybe he’s improved over the past three decades?

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