Monday, August 30, 2010

PERFECTLY MEASURED—ALAN FURST’S SPIES OF THE BALKANS

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Alan Furst’s SPIES OF THE BALKANS begins in a slow and stately tempo, not grave, but  adagio as it befits writing of singular musicality.  He calls the reader’s attention to the sullen progress of a dark cloud  that travels  over Bulgarian and Greek skies until it resolves itself into a patter  of raindrops on the rooftops of Salonika and the  dappling of  “the flat dark sea.” This is done economically,  in perfectly measured sentences. It is autumn, in 1940 “…with much of Europe occupied by Nazi Germany, and Mussolini’s armies in Albania, in the the Greek frontier…” and the heavy hand of dictator Metaxas at the helm, nothing is certain,  nothing is reliable,  and there  unspoken warnings everywhere, “…don’t trust the telephone. Or the radio. Or the newspapersOr tomorrow.
Enter a Turkish ship bearing a mysterious German  who becomes a person of interest to the Greek authorities. Detective  Costa Zannis, Furst’s hero. Zannis, a French and German speaking “tough guy, but your friend the tough guy” and his sidekick,  Gabi Saltiel , a fityish Sephardic Jew who uses his Walther PPK to pound nails into the walls of his house when his grandchildren make off with his  his hammer. With such  deft  touches does  Furst distinguish his  characters from the slick mass market detectives in the Ian Fleming mold. Impossible to imagine place these thoughts in 007’s mind, as he confronts a threat,
“Walther. Yes, the time had come work the slide, arm it, assume Gabi kept it loaded assume he had put the bullets back in the clip after he’d got done hanging up his picture. For he’d surely unloaded it, knowing full well that banging loaded weapons on hard surfaces wasn’t such a good idea—the very least you could hope for was embarrassment and it got quickly worse from there. Grampa! The cat!”
The tempo is now allegretto, the language is colloquial, the tone, conversational. The story flows in wide loops that encompass spies, and politicians, good guys and gangsters in Macedonia, Albania, Turkey, France and Germany. Soon Zannis finds himself  helping a beautiful  woman who is helping smuggle Jews out of  Germany. In the course of his work he loses his British mistresses, falls in love with a shipping magnate’s wife, defies all manner of perils, eludes the Gestapo without ever acting like a superhero. He remains devoted to his family, his friends  and to his dog Melissa as  he remains wedded to his concept of honor—one that allowed Macedonians to endure countless invasions and four centuries of Turkish domination. Impeccably plotted, suspenseful and engaging from its opening sentence, "In autumn, the rains came to Macedonia" to its last,  Furst’s tenth book,  is the work of a master whose greatest gift--but not th only one-- is his ability to get inside his characters' heads. For example,  thinking about the diner a  relative own in Altoona, Pennsylvania, the Zannises see it as a big silvery house rather than a prosaic Airstream trailer. 
Though attention to detail is not the only treasure Furst lavishes on his readers, 
it adds a rich texture and complexity to his work, "A the far end of the market, a sponge peddler peered anxiously out at the rain.   Marooned, he could only wait for if his sponges got wet he'd have to carry the weight for the rest of the night." The sponge seller, the old woman whose insistent  offer of  a fig  is freighted with the ancient wisdom of those who have been through the wars, the green stockings the dead German spy wears, the helmet of hair that transforms Zannis's secretary into a warrior, the scent of Papastratos Number1 cigarette smoke and  coffee from the kafeneion,  the taste of meze make Salonika almost palpable.
Make no mistake, SPIES OF THE BALKANS is not an idyllic travelogue. Circumstances compel everyday, low profile folk to perform heroic deeds. Zannis eventually learns to distinguish between  the  time to talk things over and the  time to kill. He risk life again and again and emerges, not as martyr, not as a saint, but as a decent, honorable man. There are losses along the way, but virtue triumphs, after a harrowing odyssey.Unfortunately, in real life, the Nazis destroyed Salonika’s Jewish community. Members of my Sephardic family, the Mellos (formerly bar Rosh) of Toledo, Spain, perished in concentration camps. An army  Zannises and Saltiels might have kept them safe.

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