Review of ‘Dark Star’ by Alan Furst

imagesDark Star is a novel set during the last two years before the onset of World War II. The story of Andre Szara, a forty year old Russian Pravda journalist turned reluctant spy, from autumn 1937 to late 1940 the reader crosses from Moscow to Paris, from Berlin to Lisbon to Kovno as we follow our ill-suited NKVD spymaster who tries to remain alive as he negotiates both the pogroms of Hitler’s power, the culling of Soviet Intelligence Agencies, and the intricacies of trying to source information on German military might for his masters. It is also the story of a passionate writer and his relationships with women: Renate Braun, Marta Haecht, Lady Angela Hope, Annique Schau-Wehrli, and Nadia Tscherova.
Starting with his dealing with the murder of Khelidze he is first approached by General Bloch of the GRU on a train to Prague then finds himself saved from the murderous intentions of the Georgian khvost operative, Ismailov, and co-opted into going to Villa Baumann where his realisation that Dr Julius Baumann’s swage wire for controlling planes would enable Russia to understand how many bombers were being produced in Germany.
As his usefulness grows so he finds himself working as a deputy for Capt. I J Goldman for a spy network called OPAL, operating out of Rue Relesseux, Paris. His involvement in espionage becomes more personal as he develops relationships with his co-spies, changing to become more acerbic with the fate of Seneschal, the efforts to suborn Huber. His handler is Abramov of the NKVD, himself vying for power with Dershani. We follow him as his task grows ever more difficult, as he witnesses Kristallnacht, is invited to the Renaissance Club, called upon to examine his own sense of humanity in the growing disaster of a people beset on all sides, struggles to find temporary solace in the act of love, witnesses the start of war at Lvov, faces interrogation by the Gestapo officer, Hartmann, finally ends up near Zurich as “the inheritor of a great tradition; Abramov’s heir and Bloch’s.” Fundamentally, what causes his struggle and his ultimate failure to be the perfect spy, ensures he is Hurst’s flawed “hero” is that “an ancient instinct, to stand between women and danger, sapped his will to run operations the way they had to be run and made him a bad intelligence officer – it was just that simple.”
His development as an intelligence operative is one of paperwork, of covering his tracks, of codes and dark meetings, of paranoia and suspicion – a world forged of its own misunderstandings and brutal desire for self-advancement. For men and women seeking to control everything they have no control at all, pawns to be discarded at the whim of those above them. At one point Szara notes that “One could say…that a Nazi official’s appetite for red berry sauce had two years later led to the death of a Russian intelligence officer in Switzerland.” It is this that underscores the grey pain of his reality.
Alan Furst’s dialogue is embraced by a writer’s creative need for philosophy, to prove his study of the near-history, to show his flair for creating atmosphere; he wants us to sympathise, not empathise. At times the musing of Szara seem to be merely a vessel for the voice of Furst himself; ghostly snatches heard of a soliloquy in sentences like: “which facts really spoke, so that the writer could step aside and allow the story to tell itself.” At other times we hear the caustic barb of a libertarian: “Politicians were like talking dogs in a circus: the fact they existed was uncommonly interesting, but no sane person would actually believe what they said.”, or observing a social distaste: “You know what they say in Paris, that a woman attending a soiree needs only two words of French to be thoughts an elegant conversationalist? Formidable and Fantastique.”
The author’s characterisation is stylised, personal circumstances of his actors put into neat rows of discernible facts, dressed in a heavy coat of emotive musing: “A man whose friends are vanishing every day must learn to muzzle death in order to keep his sanity – didn’t a kind of affection always take root in proximity?” or “With time he developed the instincts of a priest: evil existing; the task was to work productively within its confines.” Throughout is a rich narrative tradition of descriptive writing. So we get Abramov described as speaking in “a low, hoarse rumble, a voice rich with sorrow at having found all humankind to be the most absurd collection of liars and rogues.” Examples abound, each page is not just written but crafted so we are led willingly into the world Furst creates. We believe in Szara, see the world in many shades of greys, sense the oppressive futility of it all.
I was recommended this book with the statement “It out-Le Carrés, John Le Carré”.
I have to agree. I’ll certainly read another.

Categories: Alan Furst, Book Reviews

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