Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Gracious and Dignified Lie and the World's Secret Nobility

I finally got around to checking out the "historical espionage novels" of Alan Furst, starting with the one that usually comes most recommended, The Polish Officer. I was not disappointed and will be reading more Furst. In a nutshell, he covers the clandestine aspects of the Second World War with great depth and accuracy, which naturally unfolds intellectual and emotional aspects of the war that would otherwise have been unexplored. In the case of The Polish Officer I am struck not so much by what Furst explicitly details but by what he implies, by what he reveals; through the actions of his protagonist he describes the heart of a nation constantly besieged by stronger neighbors, a stalwart, fatalistic strain of subversion and resistance. Alexander de Milja begins the novel as a cartographer. He ends it as a survivor, a man who has escaped death so many times through luck or happenstance that it no longer bears meaning. What does bear meaning, however, is the struggle -

"I have to keep fighting," he said. "The Germans, the Russians. Perhaps both. Perhaps for years and years. But I might live through it, you never know. Somebody always seems to survive, no matter what happens. Perhaps it will be me."

Along the way, Furst also reveals adeptly the emotional states that accompany espionage in times of desperate struggle, the individual and sexual longing that comes out of the intense anxiety and boredom of waiting for cataclysm, the shame and pride, the pain and discomfort. He touches gracefully areas of the spy's life normally summarized. This is accomplished in part not only by the actions of the main characters but the minor characters that exemplify the WW II theme of "ordinary people responding to extraordinary circumstances." "Strange, he thought, how you stumble on the world's secret nobility when you're not even looking for them."

For me, personally, there are always small moments in the course of the prose in which an author cements his or her work to my heart. Here is one:

The waiter came with coffee, real coffee, very hard to get in Paris these days unless you bought on the black markets.

"We're not serving sugar tonight," the waiter explained.

"Oh, but we don't take sugar," Genya said.

The waiter nodded appreciatively - a gracious and dignified lie, well told, was a work of art to a man who understood life.