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Kingdom of Shadows
Random House, $24.95 (cloth)
Early in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West's poetic and encyclopedic account of her journeys through Yugoslavia in the 1930s, she notes that for the French, "Balkan" was a term of abuse implying barbarism—a linguistic reflection of the violence that seemed endemic to the region. She recalls hearing a woman in a neighboring hotel room being beaten up by her lover sobbing out, "Balkan! Balkan!"
Alan Furst cannily and subtly echoes this scene in his latest literary thriller set in Paris in the late 1930s. There are other echoes of West's magnum opus, and they make for a fitting homage, because like West, Furst is fascinated by the ethnic hatreds that bedeviled Eastern and Southern Europe and helped fuel World War II.
Furst also set his previous thriller, the brooding, sensual Red Gold, primarily in Paris. During the Nazi occupation, Jean Casson, a film producer, plunges from the high life into poverty and hiding. His desperation leads him—albeit with somewhat reluctance—to join the Resistance as a liaison to the French Communist Party. Moving from wartime Paris to Marseille, Furst dissects how the Nazis turned France's labyrinthine bureaucracy into a deadly weapon.
Furst's new hero, Nicolas Morath, isn't at all down on his luck, nor is he reluctant to help people in trouble. Though he lives in Paris, he's a member of "the Hungarian Nation, as the nobility was called, Magyars whose family histories went back a thousand years." Combining the offhand noblesse oblige of his class with the steeliness of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, he transforms a quiet campaign to help refugees escape from Eastern Europe into a life-threatening attempt to undermine Hungarian fascism, topple Hitler, and prevent the outbreak of war. The book is aptly titled. Nicholas may lead a pleasant emigré life in Paris of "appetizing privacy, and immersion in the city, all passion, pleasure, and bad philosophy"—but it's deeply shadowed by history, politics, and war.
An especially dark shadow is cast by the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose cities are just a train ride away but whose glories seem as lost as the fame of Carthage. For Nicholas and his compatriots, the Dual Monarchy lives on only in charming conversations "in the Austrian dialect with High German flourishes, Hungarian, and French," medals, and memories of an army that spoke ten languages. These traces waft through the book like a siren song too distant to be dangerous. More painful still for Morath and his countrymen is Hungary's loss by treaty in 1920 of two-thirds of its territory to Romania, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. Revanchism roils the political waters in Hungary and makes a deal with Hitler appealing to some, appalling to others. Opposed to this homegrown fascism is the sadly fanciful notion of an "Intermarium": Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia overcoming their enmity and uniting against Germany.
But it's Morath's service as a cavalry officer and the slaughter he saw in World War I that burden him most. Because of the war, he feels "doomed to live with a certain heaviness of soul, not despair, but the tiresome weight of pushing back against it." Of course he recognizes he's not alone: soldiers of every belligerent had "been poured into the grinding machine. Where some of them died, and some of them died inside themselves." But how can anyone be free of this nightmare, when only twenty years later, another war is looming? It stalks the book in the form of Hitler's frenzied speeches; Neville Chamberlain's scurrying appeasement; the Anschluss with Austria; outbreaks of violence in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Germany; political maneuvering and back stabbing; espionage, assassination, and mysterious missions. And it is inevitable, despite the fact that Parisians feel "it all seemed to happen in a far away land, distant and unreal, where ministers arrived at railroad stations and monsters walked at night."
Rebecca West filled Black Lamb and Grey Falcon with brilliant speeches and diatribes by a polyglot cast of characters, and Furst has a similar cacophony of speakers analyzing every detail of the political situation. Like West, Furst is fond of dotting his narrative with illuminating and ironic mini-essays, as when Morath is on a mission to:
… Ruthenia. Or affectionately, Little Russia. Or, technically, Sub-Carpathian Ukraine. A Slavic nibble taken by the medieval kings of Hungary, and ever since a lost land in the Northeast corner of the nation. Then, after the world war, on a rare day when American idealism went hand in hand with French diplomacy … they stuck it onto Slovakia and handed it to the Czechs. Somewhere, Morath speculated, in a little room in a ministry of culture, a Moravian bureaucrat was hard at work on a little song, 'Merry Old Ruthenia / Land we love so well.'
The densely-packed story moves briskly, the characters and settings are entirely believable, and the writing is deeply evocative, likewise reminiscent of West's portrait painting of one unusual landscape after another. When Morath ventures back to Budapest to urge his mother to leave in case there's a war, the city's unique smells tell him that he's home: "Burnt coffee and coal dust, Turkish tobacco and rotten fruit, lilac water from the barbershops, drains and damp stone, grilled chicken."
And here's Morath departing Ruthenia:
the sky was filled with torn cloud, tinted red by the sunset over the Carpathian foothills, empty fields stretched away from the little road, boundary lines marked by groves of birch and poplar. The land turned to wild meadow, where the winter grass hissed and swayed in the evening wind. It was very beautiful, very lost. These blissful, bloodsoaked valleys, he thought.
In an age of distended thrillers that could be used as blocks under airplane wheels, this book is blessedly under 250 pages, each one of which is perfectly pitched, whether Furst's hero is strolling the Palais Royale arcade in Paris or smuggling someone across a fog-bound East European border. Rebecca West darkly observed in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon that "It is as if a fountain of negativism plays in the centre of Europe, killing all living things within the reach of its spray…. It knows no racial limitation. Life, under any label, is the enemy." Furst doesn't draw any happier conclusions, which makes Morath's Hemingwayesque determination to do the right thing so powerful and gives Kingdom of Shadows so much texture and depth.
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