André Szara, survivor of the Polish pogroms and the Russian civil wars and a foreign correspondent for Pravda, is co-opted by the NKVD, the Soviet secret intelligence service to become a full-time spymaster in Paris. As deputy director of a Paris network, Szara finds his own star rising when he recruits an agent in Berlin who can supply crucial information.
As a protagonist, Szara was great. His little side jobs for the NKVD became much more than he bargained for, but he handled it with expertise he didn’t know he had. He’s vaguely romantic in the sense that he has fought in wars and is a widower due to those same wars (the fact that his wife was a nurse makes it even more romantic). He’s got a good head on his shoulders and keeps his cool under fire. He’s not idealistic; he’s trying to do the best he can in a situation he can’t control. He’s shrewd but not cruelly manipulative. A good guy in a bad circumstance is the overall impression and I was glad how things ended for him even if it was so different from how most other espionage novels end.
I also liked how the overall plot wasn’t some gigantic, war-changing operation that was so vitally important as to make all other considerations meaningless. Instead it was a very localized operation moved along by relatively junior personnel. Maybe that’s what lent the feeling of futility to the story. This minor sideline wasn’t going to change anything and so the sense of time wasted, lives wasted was pretty strong for me. After all the plotting, betrayal and bloodshed the information was really not as hard to come by as Szara thought and so what good did it all do? That’s the feeling of futility and doom that pervaded for me throughout, but especially at the end when I got a horrible deflated feeling.
I did like the small sphere Furst gave us though. Through his descriptions of bombings, life as a refugee and as ‘burnt’ spy desperate for a new identity and way to safety, I really felt how trapped and hopeless it was for those people caught by it. It was very quotidian and not over the top and thus much more believable. I could easily imagine people going through with and attempting similar things to Szara. Small cogs just trying to get by. It was touching and somehow familiar although I wonder if they still make people who could do what these did. The absolute audacity of the German regime and the utter passivity of the rest of Europe (well, that’s how it came across in this novel anyway) was pretty shocking. I mean, I understand wanting to keep out of someone else’s fight, but what the hell did they think was happening to these people as they were marginalized, shut out and shipped from one place to another? Unthinkable, but it happened.
I love how Furst shows what little control people in those circumstances have over their lives. At the mercy of powerful elements shoving them and forcing them this way and that.
A terrific series with insights into the mood, realpolitik and underside of the run up to war.
Szara is always at the center of the plot. He becomes involved in separate ongoing plot lines as a journalist, a Russian spy, a British spy, a Zionist agent and a lover fighting an on and off battle for personal survival. The author fashions the characters with great subtlety. They all move in a world where the truth is not obvious and what is obvious is not the truth. Even Szara does not always share his thoughts with the reader until necessary.
Szara's two love affairs are portrayed with tenderness and poignancy. Szara shows a belief in love as the true goodness in life. He falls in love quickly and fully and this provides for Szara and the reader a respite from the quietly vicious actions that make up the majority of the interplay between the characters in the book.
The historical background of the book cuts a wide swath through the events of the period. Szara runs from Nazi bullies on Kristallnacht and travels with a Polish officer during the invasion of Poland. He reads a dossier of the early career of Stalin as a double agent of the Czar's secret service. These events add to the drama and emotional intensity of the book.
I would recommend this book as a well told adventure in an interesting historical era. The variety of characters and the significance of the events portrayed add to the enjoyment. I have one other book by this author and plan to read it soon.
May 2, 2010 8:10 PM
An on the plane novel for the trip to lecture in Toronto, finished compulsively in a long session on a Sunday afternoon. The hero, Andre Szara, is a Soviet journalist; the setting is Europe in 1938 and 1939. He is, naturally, Jewish, a survivor of Polish progroms and a fighter in the Russo-Polish war and World War 1. He initially only does an occasional task for the NKVD, but discovers some embarrassing evidence that Stalin was an agent for the Czarist secret police, and finds a connection to industry in Nazi Germany, and is absorbed into the apparat as a spymaster. Through contacts with Jewish financiers in France, and with an agent in the German foreign office service, he survives, acquiring a mistress and lover. The story moves well but there is one plot device that makes no sense - there is no internal logic for Szara to be in the Polish countryside when war starts. The characters are believable, the logic of the spy world is fascinating.
Ok. So a spy novel. But Furst knows his history...sometimes a little too much. But I loved the cloak and dagger feel of the book and the time period was just crazy. I can't imagine traipsing around Europe right before WWII.
I'm going to definitely check out his other books.
In this Furst novel our hero / anti-hero Szara, a Polish Jew is a Russian journalist who is coerced into the spy game.
Not quite as good as the first of this series but still excellent. Reading Furst's books the WWII espionage is giving me some much needed background in areas of the war in which I had not really given much thought. I have read several of the Manning Coles novels on spy / espionage during the war but they are not nearly as intricate of the Furst novels, though lighter reading.
I will admit that thus far I am struggling through this series. Furst writes of so many people, places, introducing the reader to fresh views of war time activity, duplicity and leaderships that even striving hard to concentrate on his excellent writing, this reader finds she must work to keep her head in the work.
We have a new hero / antihero in this second book but there are a few name droppings of characters and locales from the first.
I am intrigued!
Furst is one of the best when it comes to recreating the past and putting the reader right there in time and place. The book also typically is episodic, which made it too easy to put down. His books are not pageturners for me, but they are compelling, and his characters always get under my skin. Szara became a character I cared for very much.
This is a very atmospheric and evocative read. Szara is a masterful creation as someone who is plunged into an incredibly difficult situation but manages to survive working for his two masters when one misstep would result in his demise. While there are a few contrivances which see the reluctant spy being placed in a position to witness critical events in the unfolding drama, the plot is tight and focused. While the reader is aware of the bigger picture, the story remains centred on the protagonist throughout. The only thing that stops this from being a five star read is the ending, it's just a little too pat.