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)

Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson

This 2007 work is a difficult novel to digest. I was drawn to it because it is about the Vietnam War and has received extensive praise. But I find that it is not my kind of novel. It is not about people, but about experiences. And while these are brilliantly described experiences, they are disconnected. For one thing, we jump back and forth between the experiences of the two male characters. For another, we jump ahead continually in time.

The first character is Skip Sands, part of a nebulous CIA operation and nephew of the legendary Colonel Sands, an Edward Lansdale type of character. The second is James Houston, an enlisted soldier in Vietnam and his brother Bill. In both these relationships, Skip and James admire their family counterparts and earn our sympathy and identification, but both also end up on the wrong side of the law. This novel is about why that happens, but their sad fates also frustrate the reader’s need to identify with these characters.

In other words, the message of this novel is the harm that this war did to young men, and by implication to society at large. Not simply because of the reason the U.S. forces were in Vietnam, but because of their actions once there. And in this novel, these actions are quite disorganized. Which has resulted, for me, in a disorganized novel. I ended up reading a novel about those actions rather than a novel about the evolution of these characters. That is, both Skip and James are completely different people at the end of this novel, and it is not clear how or why they changed. Yes, the war, in general, caused it, but the reader does not experience the internal change in each one, only the disorganized experiences that seem to have prompted it.

Moreover, those experiences were, for me, too unpleasant, as well as too disconnected, to draw me into this novel. Yes, the author is showing that they were unpleasant in order to make his point. But they reflect too much for me the modern novelists’ detachment from his characters—resorting to a brilliant objectivity that, for me, inserts a barrier between myself and the characters I am reading about. And I acknowledge that for some this is a positive result. They admire such objectivity. But I wonder if it is because they do not approach the reality they describe with social, spiritual, or moral standards.

B. R. Myers writes a devastating review in The Atlantic, which makes me more comfortable in my reaction, but that review concentrates on Johnson’s writing style more than on its content. Whereas, I was more impressed by the vividness of the style that so often put me in the actual scene. I sensed that the specifics meant that Johnson himself had been to Vietnam and witnessed/experienced that life and that landscape. Which seems to say that, for me, the vividness of the style overwhelmed Myers’ critique of the felicities of style.

Geoff Dyer in The Guardian also sums up this novel: “Johnson is all over the place and he is an artist of strange diligence. It is as if his skewed relationship to the sentence – not really knowing what one is and yet knowing exactly what to do with it – operates, here, at the level of structure. Tree of Smoke is as excessive and messy as Moby Dick. Anything further removed from the tucked-up, hospital corners school of British fiction is hard to imagine. It’s a big, dirty, unmade bed of a book and, once you settle in you’re in no hurry to get out.”

That’s me, caught up in each adventure, that is, until it seemed to go nowhere. Thus, the title, Tree of Smoke, the name of a CIA project, is never explored. And the project is as amorphous as the rest of these disconnected events. Speaking of disconnections, the novel ends with Kathy, a nurse with whom Skip has a brief affair—she appears sporadically, unlinked to other events, throughout the novel—giving a speaking engagement in St. Paul years later. And it is she who expresses the novel’s final line: “All will be saved. All will be saved.” Huh? That upbeat seems to come from nowhere.

Perhaps my fascination with the vivid events of this novel, combined with a struggle to get through it, is best captured by David Ignatius in The Washington Post: “This novel makes large demands on the reader: to submit to its length, to its disorienting language and structure, to the elusive and shattering experience of its characters, and finally to its sheer ambition to be definitive, an encompassing novel for the Vietnam generation. It is a presumptuous book, in other words, and you may resist for the first several hundred pages. But it will grab you eventually, and gets inside your head like the war it is describing — mystifying, horrifying, mesmerizing.”

Yes, this novel jumps around too much for me. From Bill to Skip, from Bill to James, from Skip to the colonel’s lieutenants, and then to Kathy. Also, from year to year, and then to a decade later. All is disconnected. How does Skip get blamed for the colonel’s failed plans? Why does he then turn criminal? Why does James also turn criminal after he comes home to his brother? Why does Kathy lose her faith in God but not in man? I suggest the Vietnam War is too simple an explanation for all this. Especially for a novel that does not get inside its characters.

Johnson’s favorite milieu appears to be the underside of life, whether in the military or back home. And Vietnam offers a fine opportunity to enter that world, both the American world of an ineffectual CIA or military mission and the Vietnam world’s interchangeable allegiances. One should note that there is no military action here for a war novel, no actual spy missions for its espionage atmosphere, only talk and planning and new talk and new planning, a year later, to new off-screen developments. There are also long journeys through nature, but no climactic revelations, no missions accomplished. There are only mysterious assassins, mysterious loners, and the mysterious Vietnamese culture.

Matterhorn remains my favorite novel about the Vietnam War. We follow our soldiers actually fighting. They have a mission. And they succeed or they fail. And react accordingly. (January, 2017)

Horn of Africa, by Philip Caputo

This 1980 work is a novel of adventure, and also a work of literature. From the very first pages, it drew me into its world. First, because of narrator newspaperman Charlie Gage’s point of view; he is a burnt-out case and full of guilt. The guilt is both for the story he will tell and for his role in the deaths of men with whom he shared a mission. And, second, this novel drew me in with its creation of a vivid, tangible foreign world, first that of Cairo, Egypt, and then of a stress-filled crossing of African deserts into the mountains of Ethiopia.

This is the early text that drew me into Caputo’s world, as narrated by Gage: “This story may be an exorcism of sorts; but it is not an apology for the things we did and the things we allowed him to do out there….Certainly we would have been indicted if everything had happened in a place where lawyers and judges stage the little dumbshows we call justice; but it all took place in the empty desert in the midst of a revolution….Each eventually dispensed its own form of justice, crude and unfair, but forms of justice nevertheless. The last few days on the desert were the worse, racking us with agonies more exquisite that could be inflicted by the worst prison in the world. The wilderness, however, was not entirely merciless; it allowed me to escape, to bear witness, and to experience a kind of expiation. The professional moralists, from their pulpits, from their editorial offices, from their speaker’s dias…might say it was not a genuine expiation and call for investigating commissions, inquiries, punishments. Let them chatter. We paid whatever debt we owed. Nordstrand and Moody paid all a man can pay, Nordstrand with interest because his liability was the greatest. I took his last installment and closed his account.”

That is what hooked me. This is Greene territory, Conrad territory, the territory of moral novelists exploring the roles of consience and justice in a violent, unjust world.

The mission, called Operation Atropos, is to bring armaments to Moslem Ethiopian rebels who wish to carve out a piece of Ethiopia and create a separate country called Bejaya. Charlie Gage, the American newspaperman, is recruited in Cairo by an ambitious American agent called Colfax, who seeks to make a name for himself. Colfax also recruits a level-headed but ineffectual English officer named Moody, who is to be in charge, and a dominating, headstrong, powerful soldier named Nordstrand, who is to provide the muscle and, as he himself believes, the leadership. Nordstrand is clearly the novel’s major character. After delivering the arms, he sees himself as the leader of the new nation, which is why he exerts brutal control over everyone he deals with.

What complements such conflict among the characters is the physical detail, whether in the streets of Cairo or the desert outside, whether in the villages or valleys of Africa, its sands or its swamps, its mountains or ravines, and whether one treks in the heat of day or the chill of night. The trio must also deal with the loyalty and the fickleness of both the natives they encounter and the rebels they join. Indeed, one so marvels at the physical detail that one is convinced that Caputo himself must have explored that same rugged terrain and lived the same exotic life of the African native. Because he makes that world come so alive.

The novel moves back and forth between its two strengths, character and description. And more than a reader expects, straight narration plays a major role, both forays into the past and extended descriptions of the present. Particularly effective are the constant physical and human obstacles when crossing deserts, confronting armed men, and hiking into the mountains. This vivid environment ranges from thornbushes to mosquitos, from swamp muck to endless sand, and includes even the sounds of snorting camels and jingling harnesses, plus the darkness, the burning heat, and the exhaustion. And yet…the narrative sustains our interest, even as little else happens.

In another complication, the arms the trio expects to deliver to the rebels do not arrive; but the trio continue on, hoping the promise to deliver those arms will justify their trek into rebel territory. That they will not be held for ransom by Jima, the rebel leader who awaits the weapons. Which reverts to the second strength of the novel, the relationships among the trio and their local contacts, Murrah and Osman, as well as with Jima. All of which comes across in both violent disputes and moments of introspection and doubt. Particularly effective is the intimidation by Nordstrand, whether he is trying to dominate narrator Gage, officer Moody, or the local natives.

Nordstrand is a violent schemer who seeks to control every obstacle he meets, and who does not care about the pain he inflicts on others. He meets an ironic fate however, when his installation into a native tribe, which he seeks as the first step in dominating them, results in an infection that weakens him and begins his downfall. This is the character Caputo wants the reader to remember. How his maniacal ambition brings his own destruction.

But Caputo also wants to demonstrate the foolhardiness of the entire operation. First, the foolish effort by Colfax to create the operation; and then, on the scene, the muscle that Nordstrand uses to control his colleagues, and the even greater violence he resorts to, murder, in order to take over, first, the revolution and then the new country. With the guilty conscience of narrator Gage underscoring that evil by allowing it to happen.

In the novel’s climax, the rebels capture a vital town and then the more powerful government forces bombard and destroy it. The horror of warfare is brilliantly portrayed here, and leads each character to his fate—a fate we have been prepared for. Except we learn how the various characters die, and where the responsibility lies for their deaths.

To sum up, this brilliant novel blends adventure, morality, and justice. It brings alive both its characters and its African setting. It contrasts the brutal Nordstrand, the “civilized” Moody, and the pliant Gage, along with the pragmatic, deceitful, and violent natives. I rarely use a novel’s blurb to help sum it up, but this blurb works: “Set in a bleak landscape where none of the signposts of civilization as we know it exist, [this novel] exposes the dark side of human nature—the side that, freed of all restraints, acts without pity, without conscience, without remorse.” (May, 2015)