Published by Random House
Review by W. R. Greer
Wars are often remembered for their large battles, but most of the participants are involved in a vast number of smaller battles and skirmishes that make up the majority of the war. Spy novels tend to revolve around momentous events in history, where the drama lies in making sure that the historical moment occurs, or that some calamitous event never becomes part of history. In Blood of Victory, Alan Furst delivers a spy novel that deals with just a minor skirmish during World War II, with ordinary people pulled into the maelstrom of events because it was impossible not to get involved. In doing so, he paints a vivid picture not of the war, but rather its insidious effect on the lives of people who'd rather just live peacefully with their neighbors.
Ilya Aleksandrovich Serebin is a Russian without a home, driven out of Russian during one of Stalin's purges. He's a writer living in his adopted city of Paris under German occupation in 1940, and he runs a support organization for Russian émigrés scattered across Europe. World War II is Serebin's fifth war, from other European conflicts to Russian civil wars, and, like many Russians, he's adopted a fatalistic view of war and life in general. Yet he's a poet and romantic who still finds love and beauty in the world. In the beginning of the novel, Serebin is in Istanbul visiting the émigré office there and paying one last visit to a woman, Tamara, he once loved and who is dying from tuberculosis. While there, a bomb kills the émigré's office main benefactor and only a timely phone call saves Serebin's life. It is unknown who planted the bomb, whether it was the Russian secret police, the Turkish secret police, or the Gestapo. This drives home the point to Serebin, that as much as he can try to ignore the war, it has a way of reaching out and finding him wherever he might be. He tells Tamara that once the Nazis occupied Paris, he just wanted to continue to live life as it was before the war.
"But we would all stay the same, so we told each other, because, if we changed, then the fascists would win. Maybe I knew better, in my heart, but I wanted to believe that that was enough: hold fast to life as it should be, the daily ritual, work, love, and then it will be.
"That is sweet, Ilya. Charming, almost."
He laughed. "Such a hard soul, my love."
"Oh? Well, please to remember who we are and where we've been. First you say you'll pretend to do what they want, then you do what they want, then you're one of them. Oldest story in the world: if you don't stand up to evil it eats you first and kills you later, but not soon enough."
"Yes, I know."
"So now, tomorrow, next day, you'll find a way to fight."
"Is that what you want?"
"No, never. I fear for you."
This is the central conflict in the novel. Serebin is weary of war, needless death, and living in fear, and as much as he wishes he could just live a normal life, he knows he'll be unable to. Although he then volunteers to work for British secret services through an Hungarian spy master, Count Janos Polanyi, Serebin is an unlikely spy. As are many of the people who work with him. While not rank amateurs, many of them are spies because they feel they have no other choice, that in time of war against the evils of fascism being forced upon their countries, they must try anything to help the cause. If the war is ever won, they would wish for nothing more than some semblance of a normal life.
This is also the strength of Alan Furst's latest historical spy novel. Instead of master spies in a battle of wills where the balance of the war will turn, these are people with whom we can empathize, whose fears and wants sound like our own if we were caught in the same situation. Furst moves Serebin and other characters back and forth across Europe and expertly captures the mood and realism of war in occupied countries, where being in the wrong place at the wrong time can mean a senseless death, where any suspicion by the Nazis could mean arrest or disappearance, and where daily life is fraught with fear and moments of terror. A sense of fatalism affects all the characters in this book, where despite their best efforts, any day could be their last.
Serebin is given the assignment to be part of team to try to disrupt the flow of oil from Romanian fields to the German armed forces. Oil, the "blood of victory," is the key element to the movement of any modern army, and many of the Nazi strategic military decisions involved capturing fields or controlling the flow of oil into Germany. Aware that they will be unable to destroy the oil fields, as was done during World War I, Serebin and his co-conspirators devise a plan to continually disrupt barge traffic that would carry the oil from the Romanian fields up the Danube River to Germany. Much of the original spy work is dangerous drudgery, such as visiting Romania to interview people who might be willing to help them for a variety of reasons. Approaching the wrong person could bring the authorities, visiting others forces them to leave the country. This is done against the background of different groups fighting for control of Romania now that the king has fled into exile, and with the Germans concerned only with stability and the export of wheat and oil from the country.
Serebin's companion on this trip is Marie-Galante, the wife of a French diplomat who originally seduced him so that she could introduce him to Count Polanyi. An attraction and partnership of convenience soon blossoms into something more, but it becomes one more part of Serebin's life where he has no control and its conditions are dictated by the war, not the life he chooses. Part of being a spy is not knowing whom to trust, if anyone. Serebin has also been befriended in Paris by a German officer, who at first offers companionship and intellectual stimulation. Serebin knows, however, that it will eventually lead to a request for favors where he will be unable to refuse. When the request comes, he knows he must leave Paris forever before a meeting can be arranged.
The contacts made and the research done by Serebin and other members of the spy team eventually lead to a sabotage trip down the Danube River where Serebin is once more thrust directly into war. He is aware that while he would love their effort to lead to a major effect on the Nazi war machine, his battle is just one more minor skirmish to drain resources from the German army.
Blood of Victory is not a powerful book that grabs your emotions or one that is filled with war action to keep pages turning quickly. The book is a quick read, though, since it weaves sympathetic characters through realistic depictions of life in Europe during 1940, and their humanity never plays second fiddle to the war story. Ilya Serebin could be a man turned cynical and self-centered by his unlucky lot in life, but in the midst of war, he continues to search for beauty and truth. In the guise of a spy story, Alan Furst has given us a story about a man with the courage to retain his humanity, his love, and his hopes in the face of evil. Without realizing how expertly he has drawn us into Serebin's world, we are enriched by the short time we've stayed with him.
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