Midnight in Europe, by Alan Furst

This 2014 novel is a fast read, and a highly polished and professional work of espionage. But it has little depth, No, for example, moral issues. Or psychological issues. And no real danger confronts its hero, Christian Ferrar, a Spanish exile who is a lawyer at a distinguished French law firm in Paris.

What this novel does achieve is an effective portrait of pre-war Europe. This is a strong point of most of Furst’s novels, and here he focuses on the Spanish Republic’s efforts to obtain anti-tank canon and artillery shells for use against the more powerful armaments employed by the forces of Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

Ferrar’s two assignments are finding the canon and the specific shells that fit the Republic’s older weapons, and then arranging their delivery to the Republican forces in Spain. Which involves fast-moving but routine events, requiring Ferrar and his colleagues to ferret out the armaments from Eastern and Central Europe. Which also means he must deal with idealists and gangsters, and with arms traders and aristocrats, plus Max de Lyon, a mysterious arms merchant. Encounters with them also capture the 1930’s atmosphere, as they range from shady Paris nightclubs to the city’s plush apartments, as well as from a brothel in Istanbul to a dockyard in Poland,

But one of the novel’s problems is that there is little linkage among these events; they simply present hurdles to be overcome. That is, there is no building of suspense, no solving of one problem that leads to the next. Nor are there serious villains who offer threats to Ferrar’s two missions. The only problems are getting control of the armaments and making the delivery.

But, of course, such missions turn out to be not that simple. In one case, the team loses control of the cannon shipment and must take over a train in Poland to deliver it. In another, the shells are found in Russia, but Stalin’s policy refuses to sell the shells to his supposed allies, the leftists in Spain. And so, after the shells are found, they must be stolen, hidden on an ancient steamer, and then transported across the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. This sequence builds high drama as the novel draws to a close.

There are personal detours, of course, to flesh out Ferrar’s character and pique our interest. For example, he is a ladies man, and has at least three affairs during the course of his undercover work. He also has other responsibilities at his French law firm that fill out his life as a lawyer, but do not impact the search for armaments. At other intervals, Furst captures the atmosphere of European life, where people know that war is approaching but are not sure when and where. Still further atmosphere is created on a Paris-Berlin express train at night, on hectic car rides in Paris and Poland, and the climactic voyage through a storm and outrunning a patrol boat.

When in mood for a fast-paced thriller, another tale by Furst would be welcome. But despite the atmosphere, these works are not literature, and they lack the psychological probing and moral complexity that is a trademark of the best espionage novels. (July, 2019)

Leaving Berlin, by Joseph Kanon

This is a marvelous espionage novel from 2015. It is set in Berlin in 1949 during the historic Air Lift, and it richly evokes that bombed city and its survivors, along with an atmosphere in which every encounter, with both friends and strangers, raises suspicion. The novel also works because of the moral issues that these characters face, as they struggle to survive in their world of conflicting political interests. Who is truly loyal to the Americans, to their German friends, to the East German regime, and to the Russians? It is not easy to answer when one’s own survival often depends on deceiving others.

The intrigue begins for the reader when the novel’s main character Alex Meier, a promising Jewish writer who once fled Hitler, goes back as a spy to Berlin, where he grew up. The CIA has agreed to erase his leftist ties in America if he pretends to support the new East German government. Just as Anna Seghers and Bertolt Brecht, who also appear in the novel, actually did. To earn his clean slate, Alex must befriend a former lover, Irene, who is sleeping with a high-ranking Russian, and from her learn more about Russian strategy for East Germany. Meanwhile, the East Germans, to whom he is pretending loyalty, also recruit Alex to befriend the same woman and inform them as well about Russian strategy. He thus becomes a new version of a double agent. And these conflicting objectives will soon lead him to facing such choices as silence, betrayal, and murder.

Indeed, our hero Alex learns quickly that the loyalties of those he meets are going be difficult to determine; and this begins with his first rendezvous, which results in a shootout, a death, and accusations of betrayal against a man he thought was a friendly American contact. From there, Alex begins his supposed mission at an East Berlin cultural center, where other Germans such as Brecht have returned to promote the culture of the new East German regime. But even there he discovers divided loyalties—among those who believe in themselves first (like Brecht) or in German culture, those supporting the new East German political state, and those mainly fearful of the Russian occupiers. And some of these empathize with Alex, but do not trust him. Thus, the motives of every character become more and more hidden and more and more diverse.

The end result is a plot line that twists and turns, as Alex tries to satisfy all his contacts, not betray himself, retain the love of Irene, and serve both the Germans’ and the Americans’ needs. It is an almost impossible task. It also continually raises moral issues about loyalty, both personal and political, and how much the end justifies the means. And so Alex is trapped amid moral and political quandaries. One of his major issues is trust. Who can he trust? For he is attempting to avoid suspicion for killing an important Russian. He is trying to help two friends flee to the West: Irene and her brother Erich, who has just escaped from a slave labor camp at a Soviet uranium mine. He is also seeking to thwart attempts to murder him. And he is trying to figure out who in the CIA has betrayed him.

This uncertainty of life in Berlin in 1949 is mirrored in both the rubble and the people. As Jake Kerridge in The Telegraph describes the Berlin atmosphere: “What makes this novel stand out is its portrayal of an East Berlin literally and psychologically gutted.”

In addition, Philip K. Jason in the Washington Independent Review of Books, extends this portrayal to the author’s style. He cites “carefully crafted dialogue [that] conveys enormous amounts of information, [which] feel incomplete. Do you ever walk into a situation in which everyone knows what’s going on except you? It’s something like that. Every word and sentence is crystal clear, yet the context and import remain undefined. This… is a stylistic device shaped to express uncertainty—what living in Berlin at this time feels like. Readers feel the overwhelming pressure of facts that don’t mesh.”

The result of this blend of moral complexity and political uncertainty is an action-filled finale in which an amateur spy like Alex unexpectedly becomes highly professional and creates an elaborate double-dealing plan that is difficult to follow, and yet manages to bring his situation and this novel to a conclusion. It also produces a series of surprises, primarily two unexpected reversals of loyalties, that are more to marvel at for their creativity than to accept for their believability.

Moreover, his plan also appears to enmesh Alex in a world he has been trying to escape, the implication being that his success in fulfilling his mission may well draw him more deeply into a world of espionage he wishes to avoid. This is symbolized by an American wife who has achieved the release of her East German husband by offering his captors what she considers tidbits of unimportant information. Which reverberates on a more significant level when Irene herself reveals she had offered what she considers minor information about Alex to her Russian lover.

This is one of Kanon’s best works. It is truly a thriller, not a literary work, but at its heart it explores moral and ethical issues that have always interested me. When, in other words, can you accept your hero killing another human being? Out of self-preservation, yes, but in cold blood? When can one lie, even to one’s friends, to serve a greater good, or in order to turn one’s enemies against each other? And when can love be used to serve political reasons?

Unlike recent Le Carre novels, the rationale here seems to be not to justify what is right but to address what works. What is practical, not what is moral or ethical. The result is a fast-moving work, which espionage novels should be, but not a novel with emotional depth. Its characters live too much in their political and intellectual worlds. They are too intent on self-preservation. What this novel does have, however, is moral richness, both from its setting and from the complex motivations and loyalties of its characters. (July, 2017)

The Untouchable, by John Banville

This 1997 novel is the first Banville I have read, and I now understand why he is so admired. He is a beautiful stylist, with an admirable ability to explore the sensibility of his characters. What is striking also is that he has written here a penetrating novel about a spy, the repercussions of being a spy, with no details about his actual spying.

Banville was clearly inspired by the treachery of Burgess and McLean, and the later exposure of Anthony Blunt, the art historian, as the ”fourth man.” His main character is Victor Maskell, the Blunt character, who narrates this story in his old age, knowing that he has been exposed and that he is soon to die of cancer. His story, this novel, recaptures the complicated gamesmanship of those years as a Russian spy. And he himself is literally untouchable, for not only he does not like to be touched, but on a deeper level he perceives himself to have been untouched by British authorities. And on a still deeper level, he is a stoic, one who remains emotionally aloof from his fellow men. His only commitment is to an ideal, a sense of justice that he has identified with Moscow since his student days at Cambridge.

Victor moves among other men who share either his ideals or the sexual and drunken carousing of the late 1930s. Seemingly on a whim, he enters a pro forma marriage and sires two children, only to be seduced and discover that he is gay. Which ironically deepens his character, as he balances his two hidden lives, that of a spy and that of a homosexual. Except, the novel probes his new sexual life more than his life as a spy. His character is further enriched by a Bluntian dedication to art, for his life ambition has been to head an institution that will collect and train others in understanding art. It is another example, indeed, of his commitment to an ideal that is based on an abstraction of life rather then an emotional commitment to life itself.

It is Banville’s portrayal of the escapades of his friends that sustains the reader’s interest across nearly 400 pages. But interest is further piqued by Victor’s brief adventures. He discovers a painting by Pousin that he values more than his family, since it represents the death of the stoic Seneca. He enjoys a junket to Moscow, where he is disillusioned by the life there—even though he retains his Marxist ideology. He is sent to Boulogne by the British army in 1940, and then escapes at Dunkirk. He retrieves a cache of scandalous photographs from a German castle after World War II to save the royal family from blackmail. He drives his two friends, Boy Bannister and Philip MacLeish (stand-ins for Burgess and Maclean), to the ship that will start their flight to Moscow. And all the while, he parties with Waugh-like friends and searches for gay sex in dark bathrooms.

As the novel opens, we know Victor has been exposed as a spy, and the rest of the book is his explanation of how this came about, how very effective he thought he was, and his rationalization regarding the justice of what he has done. But we slowly grasp that he is an unreliable narrator. He is surprised, for example, that after the war Moscow lets him resign as a spy without repercussions. He does not see that this is because he was not that effective. (The reader also wonders, as a result, how effective Victor is as an interpreter of art and as an art historian—even as he boasts of his art knowledge and as Banville enriches his novel by comparing the deception of reality that is art with the deception involved in espionage.)

There is even a kind of surprise ending, in which Victor is revealed to have been a patsy. For he learns that his best friend is also a spy, and this friend has been manipulating his espionage career. I say kind of a surprise, because we have not penetrated into any of these colorful characters (because narrator Victor himself has not) enough to allow this sudden reversal to have the emotional impact the author likely intended. Indeed, that final scene seems in its way artificially created, down to the gun that is never fired and which Banville acknowledges breaks all the rules of conventional drama.

I must note that Patrick McGrath has written an excellent interpretation of this novel in the New York Times: “Banville has explored the various themes suggested by the study of art: the relationship of painting to the real world, the process of restoration, the distinction between the fake and the authentic, the futility of representation, its complementary pleasures and so on…he has woven these ideas into morally complex stories about violence and passion, guilt and redemption.”

This indeed, reflects the richness of this novel. The original Blunt had the perfect profession to inspire Banville’s insight into a world of artifice, a world of shallow surfaces, of originality, of bravado, and a world of deception and self-deception. Not to forget the world of gay men, who are always living a lie, who continually face the possibility of exposure, and who are always looking back over their shoulder.

The key to Victor’s life is why he is a spy. He is writing a memoir in an attempt to figure it out himself. He intends the memoir for his biographer, who has asked him this question. But he never finds the real answer. Is it because he is Irish, and so hates the British? Is it because he resents his father, a Protestant bishop, and the Soviets preach atheism? Is it because he is a stoic, and so does not identify with his impact on others? Is it because he feels superior to others, and spying allows him to justify this? Is it because he likes the game, much as he likes the game of concealing his homosexuality?

We never know the answer, but this only adds to the mysterious richness of the novel. To sum up, this is a brilliant exploration of the game of spying as told by a narrator who is not nearly as clever as he thinks. Indeed, this is why this work is not filled with his exploits as a spy, because he was indeed ineffectual. Instead, it brilliantly portrays the world he thinks he is deceiving, both his friends and the actual spies who float through his shallow world of drunken parties, back room assignations, and subversive meetings.

This novel surely inspires me to read further Banville novels. He offers that perfect blend, for me, of style and sophistication, of introspection and self-deceit, of story subjugated to character. (June, 2014)