Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst (2010)

The map at the start shows the ‘Balkan escape route 1941’, highlighting the train track from Berlin to Salonika on the Greek coast. So we have a possible subject matter, and date, before we’ve read a word.

Like all Furst’s novels the text follows the adventures of one manly man, a good man, in this case the Greek detective Constantine ‘Costa’ Zannis who enjoys smooth, sophisticated sex with his English girlfriend. As in all Furst’s novels, events are very precisely dated, so as to embed them in the troubled events of war – this one taking place between 5 October 1940 and 5 April 1941, giving a powerful sense of the historical events the characters are caught up in, as well as a dynamic sense of movement to the story, pace, at times rising to genuine tension.

Like all Furst’s historical spy stories, the text is divided into a handful of parts or ‘acts’, in this novel, four:

1. Dying in Byzantium – 5 to 27 October 1940

Introducing us to Costa Zannakis, senior detective in the port town of Salonika, to his staff in his office on the Via Egnatia, to his family and girlfriend, the succulent English woman Roxanne (‘content, feline and sleepy, her damp middle clamped to his thigh as they lay facing each other,’ p.46), to his beloved dog Melissa, and other characters such as Elias, the venerable poet who remembers fighting with the partisans in the Balkan Wars before the Great War, Vangelis, the ancient head of the police department, and so on.

Roxanne introduces Costa to Francis Escovar, a posh English travel writer who he immediately suspects of being a spy. More importantly he meets Emelia Krebs who begs him to help her set up an ‘escape route’ for the harassed Jews of Berlin. Costa’s role is to manage their transfer on through Bulgaria, into Greece, and then on to Turkey. Being a good chap he agrees. He can use his contacts in the Bulgarian police to smooth the way, and also pull in favours with the Turkish consul to facilitate ongoing journeys into Turkey.

2. The Back Door To Hell – November 1940 to mid-January 1941

Mounting political threats finally solidify as Mussolini’s Italian Army invades Greece from Albania (which it had invaded in April 1939) on 28 October 1940. Costa is called up and moved north to the village of Trikkala, along with detachments of the Greek Army. His unit are housed in a school which becomes the main radio contact for the area, and here he is met by a liaison officer from Yugoslavia, Marko Pavlic.

A local criminal is suborned by threatening foreigners to locate the building with a radio mast and to place a white blanket on the roof. This acts as a marker for the Italian dive bombers which appear and bomb the schoolohuse. Costa only just survives because he happens to have been standing in the doorway, the frame of which protects him. He pulls Pavlic from the wreckage and is himself taken to hospital with cuts to leg, damaged wrist, one eardrum punctured. And eventually patched up and sent back to Salonika, having made his military contribution.

Alas, at the first sign of trouble his English lovely, Roxanne, suddenly needs to leave. She gets Costa to drive her to an airfield where she is being met by an RAF plane, no less. Costa realises, sadly, that Roxanne was always a British spy, ‘not on you, my darling,’ she insists, but still. Deception.

Ho hum, but every cloud has a silver lining and back into his life comes Anastasia ‘Tasia’ Loukas, who he’d had a fling with previously, and who now wants to test out some of the tricks she’s learned from being an enthusiastic bisexual during their period apart. Lucky old Costa.

Back in his office, Costa continues working through the plans to set up the escape route. He and Emilia settle into a routine of sending innocent-looking letters about business to fictional companies requesting fictional orders, in which are concealed coded details of the people being sent down from Berlin.

Costa uses his underworld contacts in Salonika (Sami Pal) to identify a leading underworld figure in Budapest, Gypsy Gus, who he flies up to meet and concludes a deal with to smooth the refugees’ passage through Hungary.

We follow the fraught journey across Europe of the Gruens, renamed the Hartmanns, who encounter various problems but overcome them, in Budapest thanks to the enthusiastic stewardship of Akos, the white falcon’, a teenage psychopath who Gypsy Gus puts in charge of ensuring the ‘packages’ safety.

At every step, Furst makes us aware of the threat, the permanent threat from the Nazis, SS, Gestapo spy machinery, designed to keep watch on everyone. And we are introduced to Haupsturmführer Albert Hauser, a tidy-minded Gestapo official who had been instructed to arrest the Gruens and is irked to find them disappeared. And so starts to keep tabs on their social contacts, including one Frau Krebs. — Thus giving the story an ominous threatening sense of a net closing in on Emilia.

Back in Salonika Costa’s boss in the police, Vangelis, then brokers a meeting with Nikolas Vasilou, the richest man in Salonika, who is persuaded to donate money to fund the escape route. The quid pro quo is that Vangelis has assured Vasilou that Costa might one day end up Head of Police in Salonika: a good man to have in your debt. OK. Here’s your money, Zannakis, spend it well.

As Vasilou’s Rolls Royce purrs away Costa catches a glimpse of Vasilou’s (third) wife, the matchlessly beautiful Demetria, and it is love at first sight!

3. A French King – mid-January to 9 February 1941

British SIS officers tell Escovil he has to manage the escape of an airman, Harry Byer, from Paris. Byer is an important scientist who rashly enlisted in the RAF, was shot down in France, rescued and transported to a safe house in Paris by the Resistance. Escovil has an uncomfortable meeting with Costa in which he forces him to take the mission. Costa travels to Paris, meets the French people guarding Byer, but there is a complication. When one of the French resisters takes him to the Brasserie Heininger for dinner, Costa nearly gets into an argument with a drunk SS man who, unfortunately, follows them to the secret hotel where Byer is being kept. In getting away, Costa is forced to shoot the SS man as he approaches their car.

So, Plan B, which is Costa goes to track down his uncle, old Uncle Anasta, who moved to Paris all those years ago. Amazed to see him, Anasta calls on contacts until Costa meets an amazingly smooth man who is obviously doing very well out of the occupation (the French king of the title) who arranges for them to join an illicit cargo flight which is carrying machine guns to Bulgaria, departing from a foggy field somewhere north of Paris.

Arriving at Sofia airport Costa and Byer are nearly put under arrest until he persuades the captain unloading the crates to phone his old friend, Ivan Lazareff, chief of detectives in Sofia. What it is to have friends! Lazareff takes him and Byer for a tasty restaurant lunch, arranges exit visas and later the same day, Costa is back in Salonika, greeted like a hero by his family, handing over Byer to a suspicious Escovil,  before collapsing exhausted onto his bed.

4. Escape from Salonika – 10 February to 5 April 1941

10 February 1941. Back in his office Costa has to deal with some petty cases, then Escovil phones and irritates him by demanding a meeting and then demanding to know exactly how he got Byer out of Paris which – as it involved his uncle and Costa promised the rich Frenchman complete silence – he refuses to do.

Then he plucks up the courage to call Demetria, who he is completely besotted by – but she has gone, left with Vasilou for Athens. But then he opens one among the many letters waiting on his desk to read that she has escaped Athens on the pretext of visiting her mother and is a hotel in a village not 10 miles away. Costa takes a taxi there. They rendezvous in the place’s one shabby hotel. They sit on the bed, sad adulterers. If this was Graham Greene, just this adultery would give rise to hundreds of pages of suicidally-wracked guilt. Being Furst it only takes a glass of retsina before she’s slipping her silk panties over her garter belt and Costa makes the important discovery that her bottom is fuller and rounder than it appeared when she was dressed – and then that she is an ‘avid and eager lover without any inhibitions whatsoever’ with a fondness for fellatio. Lucky Costa. But she is another man’s wife, and not just any man, the richest man in town. This is all a very bad idea.

Next day a phone call out the blue for Roxanne, his former English lover. She drives round to his apartment. No romance, she is all business, every inch the hardened SIS agent. She describes the deteriorating situation in the Balkan countries which, one by one, are being forced to ally with Nazi Germany or will be invaded. One hope is to mount a coup in Belgrade against the pro-Nazi government. If a vehemently anti-Nazi regime can be put in place, the British will support it and that will hold up the Germans. Roxanne has come to ask Costa if he can pull strings, and contribute in a small way to the success of the coup. A wistful farewell and… she is gone!

1 March. King Boris of Bulgaria signs a pact with the Axis Powers and allows German troops to swarm into Bulgaria, not to occupy, to ensure ‘stability’ elsewhere in the Balkans. The border between Greece and Bulgaria is 475 km long.

As March proceeds Hitler threatens Yugoslavia and Costa makes arrangements for his friends and family to flee Greece. He secures visas for his lieutenant Gabi Saltiel and his family, and tells his own family they must go to Alexandria. Without him. He will stay and fight.

Costa takes a train to Belgrade where he meets up with the friend, Pavlic, who he pulled to safety from the bombed schoolhouse all those months previously and, along with a squad of hand-picked Serbian detectives, they carry out the British orders which are to arrest 27 senior Army officers and hold them in preventative custody while the Serb Air Force can carry out a coup, replacing the pro-Nazi government with an anti-Nazi one. Which is what – despite one or two hairy moments – happens.

Emilia is visited by the Gestapo man Hauser who adopts a polite tone but she is not fooled. When her husband returns home they realise they must part. She drives to see her grandfather (very rich) who has secured exit visas. Their chauffeur drives them all the way to the Swiss border which they cross with ease. Well, that was simple.

Costa’s office seems empty without Saltiel. Costa helps his family pack – even his beloved Melissa – then sees them off on a ship bound for Alexandria. Goodbye my beloved family.

A phone call from Demetria. She has finally left Vasilou. She is in a luxury hotel in Salonika. He takes a fast taxi there, runs up to her room, they order champagne, and in a few seconds she is just wearing bra and panties. And so on. It does seem to be a kind of law in these novels, that the men hold guns and the women hold penises.

The end is a sudden clot of plot. An anonymous letter, clearly from Escovil, includes one ticket on the last steamer heading to Alexandria, the Bakir. They go to board but the captain says, trouble with the engines, come back tomorrow. They’re lying in bed in the hotel next morning when the Germans begin bombing the city. The first hits are the ships in the port including the Bakir. They take what they can carry and trot to the train station. It is mayhem but they just about squeeze Demetria on the last train out of town. Costa plans to stay but has to hit a few surly men to get them to let Demetria get a tiny space on the jam-packed steps, so she implores him to stay. Thus it is that Costa ends up hanging onto the handrail by the door, one foot on the platform, almost swinging off at the bends. But instead of stopping at the next stop, the train accelerates through it and the next one, until it reaches the Turkish border. Without wanting to, he has fled Greece.

But Costa and Demetria have no visas and are just being turned away by an unimpressed Turkish official when a weedy little man pops up with Costa’s name on some list which he puts in front of the Turk – who jumps to his feet and salutes Costa! ‘Certainly he and his wife may enter Turkey!’ The little man is an agent of the British and tells an amazed Costa that he is now a captain in the British army! They will be taken to Izmir where they will help to co-ordinate the Greek resistance. They are safe. They will live!

And the little man who saved them? Is none other than the shabby little agent S. Kolb who has cropped up in numerous other Furst novels, helping out various protagonists. When his name is given on the penultimate page, I burst out laughing. It’s like the moment at the end of the movie Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves when the tall knight takes off his helmet to reveal it is – Sean Connery!

Although they deal with terrible events, there is a kind of Steven Spielberg sentimentality to Furst’s novels which means you are never really threatened, upset or afraid.


The political and strategic backgrounds

The timelines in Furst’s novels keep you on your toes regarding your World War Two knowledge and their depth of research into – here – the fast-moving political situation in the Balkans over a six month time period is fascinating.

Above all, the novels make you realise what it felt like day to day to live through the changing and generally grim events of these years. The story we on the British side are told is always very monolithic – Dunkirk, Battle of Britain, Blitz, the Desert War, D-Day, Victory.

Furst’s novels are very well-researched attempts to take you into the maze, the extremely complex mesh, of political developments on the continent, showing the reader the wide range of attitudes or opinions which were available for people to hold. Every European nation had to consider its position vis-a-vis not only the Nazis, but the likelihood of help from the Allies (Britain alone, before the Americans joined in December 1941) or the risk of entanglement with communist Russia. And every individual in those nations had to decide whose side they were on, how long they could delay making a decision, how things would pan out and affect them and their loved ones.

In Salonika, in the morning papers and on the radio, the news was like a drum, a marching drum, a war drum. (p.224)

Shucks, it was nothing

Something that places Furst’s novels a little on the simple side, psychologically, is that in all of them the protagonist is a hero: they may have foreign names but beneath the foreign clothes and foreign food and foreign languages, you can make out the lineaments of a clean-cut, all-American liberal fighting for Truth and Justice. Furst’s heroes abhor Hitler and his bully boys, they instinctively sympathise with the Jews or any other refugees. They are all decent men.

But if there is one thing we know about WW2 it is that it unleashed a very large amount of horrific indecency – betrayal, violence, torture, mass murder. Furst’s heroes not only never really see this, but even if they have minor adventures ‘in the field’, you can rely on them always returning to the healing presence of a round-bottomed young lady in their bed, trailing a winsome finger over lovely female contours, before making inventive love.

The carefree, problem-free sex (no periods, no pregnancy, no venereal disease) are symptomatic of fictions in which the hero encounters various problems, but has no inner problems or complexity. There is an untouchable innocence about the novels which is what makes them so easy and enjoyable to read. The Second World War without tears.

Style

Furst has developed a relaxed easygoing style which easily incorporates the thoughts of the main characters. In the last two novels, however, I’ve noticed the characters starting to say ‘fuck’ quite a lot. I dare say lots of people did say ‘fuck’ or its equivalent during the war, but it is such an Anglo word that rather undermines the effort of setting the stories among foreigners, among Greeks and Turks and Hungarians. Once they all start saying ‘fuck’, they all sound like they’re in an American action movie.

Zannis walked back to the office. Fucking war, he thought. (p.172)

Shut your fucking mouth before I shut it for you. (p.183)

Go fuck Germans and see where it gets you, Zannis said to himself. (p.192)

They start to sound like Rambo or Bruce Willis or anyone out of The Godfather. The advent of ‘fuck’ also made me notice the way other aspects of Furst’s style have also become more unbelted, more American. This is a Gestapo officer reviewing his card index of suspects:

He returned to his list and flipped over to the Ks: KREBS, EMILIA and KREBS, HUGO. The latter was marked with a triangle which meant, in Hauser’s system, something like uh-oh. (p.177)

Uh-oh? This makes the supposedly fearsome Gestapo officer sound like a character in Scooby-Doo or The Brady Bunch. And here is Costa, trying to decide whether to phone his mistress at her home, given the risk her husband might be there and might answer the phone:

Zannis’s eye inevitably fell on the telephone. He didn’t dare. Umm, maybe he did. Oh no he didn’t! Oh but yes, he did. (p.175)

The blurbs on the cover talk about Furst’s sophistication but I think they’re confusing descriptions of exotic locations, nice meals in fancy restaurants and women slipping out of their cami-knickers with psychological depth or acuity. In moments like these Furst’s characters come perilously close to being pantomime figures.


Dramatis personae

As always, it’s only when listing them that you realise the scale and breadth of Furst’s imagination in creating such a multiplicity of characters whose paths cross and recross in fascinating webs of intrigue.

  • Constantine ‘Costa’ Zannis, detective in Salonika, a sea port in northern Greece.
  • Gabriel – Gabi – Saltiel, his assistant.
  • Vangelis, head of the Salonika police force.
  • Spiraki, head of the local office of the Geniki Asphakia, the State Security Bureau (p.21).
  • K.L. Stacho, Bulgarian undertaker, somehow mixed up with the mystery German in the first part of the book (p.22).
  • Roxanne Brown, Costa’s sexy English girlfriend, ostensibly head of the Mount Olympus School of Ballet (p.24) though when the Italians invade she is exfiltrated by RAF plane, suggesting she was always some kind of British agent.
  • Laurette, Costa’s lover from way back, from his early years growing up in Paris.
  • Balthazar, owner of a popular restaurant in Vardar Square (p.24).
  • Sibylla, the stern clerk in Costa’s office (p.27).
  • Ivan Lazareff, chief of detectives up in Sofia, capital of Bulgaria (p.28).
  • Emilia ‘Emmi’ Krebs, née Adler, rich Jewess from Berlin, who entreats Costa to smuggle into Turkey two Jewish children (Nathaniel and Paula) she’s brought with her all the way from Berlin (p.30).
  • Ahmet Celebi the Turkish consul (p.35).
  • Madam Urglu, ‘in her fifties, pigeon-chested and stout’, Celebi’s secretary (p.37), in reality the Turkish legation’s intelligence officer (p.142).
  • Elias, king of Salonika’s poets (p.41).
  • Francis Escovil, English travel writer Roxanne introduces to Costa, pretty obviously a spy (p.44).
  • Captain Marko Pavlic, Costa’s liaison counterpart from the Yugoslav General Staff (p.74).
  • Behar, young illiterate Greek thief, bribed to place a white sheet on the roof of the schoolhouse which has been commandeered by Greek soldiers after the invasion, which acts as a marker for dive bombers who score a direct hit on it, wounding Costa and Pavlic, and killing many others (p.80).
  • Anastasia ‘Tasia’ Loukas, who works at Salonika city hall, former lover with a bisexual twist (p.94).
  • Sami Pal, Hungarian crook in Salonika, dealing in forged passports among other things (p.103)
  • Gustav Husar aka Gypsy Gus, head of Sami’s gang in Budapest (p.107).
  • Ilka, once beautiful, still sexy, owner of the bar where Gypsy Gus does business (p.119)
  • Nikolaus Vasilou, richest man in Salonika (p.120).
  • Demetria, Vasilou’s stunning goddess wife (p.122).
  • Herr and Frau Gruen, rich Jews helped by Emmi Krebs to flee Berlin, given the names Herr and Frau Hartmann (p.123).
  • The vindictive woman who picks up on the fact the Hartmanns lied when they said they were going to Frau H’s mother’s funeral, and confronts them on the boat to Hungary (p.127).
  • Man wearing a maroon tie who follows Akos and the Hartmanns to their cheap hotel and who Akos scares off by slicing the tie with his razor sharp knife (p.131).
  • Akos (Hungarian for white falcon), psychotic young fixer for Gypsy Gus (p.119).
  • Haupsturmführer Albert Hauser, dutiful officer in the Gestapo sent to arrest the Gruen / Hartmanns a few days after they arrive safely in Salonika (p.135).
  • Traudl, Hauser’s departmental secretary, a ‘fading blonde’, ‘something of a dragon’ (p.177)
  • Untersturmführer Matzig, Hauser’s devoted Nazi assistant (p.136).
  • Colonel Simonides, of the Royal Hellenic Army General Staff, gives a speech to the top 50 people in Salonika, including Costa, explaining that sooner or later the Germans will intervene to support the Italians and will win and occupy Greece. Everyone in the room should prepare for that event (p.148).
  • Jones and Wilkins, two British Secret Intelligence Service operatives who arrive in a yacht from Alexandria, compel a meeting with Francis Escovil, and surprise him by handing him a mission to smuggle a British scientist out of Paris (p.160).
  • Harry Byer, British scientist, pioneer of location finding radio beams who foolishly enlisted in the RAF and got shot down over France. Smuggled by the resistance to a safe house in Paris. Jones and Wilkins want Escovil to use Costa to smuggle him out (p.161).
  • Moises, ancient Sephardic Jew who owns the best gunshop in Salonika (p.171)
  • Didi, French aristocratic woman who is Costa’s contact in Paris, and takes him to dinner at the Brasserie Heininger, then onto the hotel where Byer is being hidden (p.180).
  • The Brasserie Heininger. Like the Fonz saying Heeeeey or Captain Kirk saying ‘Beam me up Scotty’, this is the scene the audience waits for in every Furst novel, the appearance of this fictional up-market restaurant. Here Costa is taken to lunch there by his contact in the French Resistance and, as always, they are seated at table 14, the one with the bullet hole from the shootout which featured in the first novel in the series, Night Soldiers.
  • The drunken SS officer who nearly picks a fight with Costa at the Heininger.
  • French aristocrat guarding Byer at the Paris hotel (p.185). Typically, Costa guesses that Didi and this officer are lovers.
  • Uncle Anastas, Costa’s uncle who stayed on in Paris minding a second hand store in the vast flea market at the Porte de Clignancourt (p.194). He is astonished to see his nephew, then earnestly sets about using his contacts to get him smuggled out of Paris.
  • The unnamed friend of a friend who looks like a French king, smoothly accepts the $4,000 Costa gives him, and explains the process for being flown out of France (p.197).
  • An emigre Greek who drives them up to a field north of Paris (p.199).
  • The Serbian (?) pilot of the plane which flies them to Sofia (p.200).
  • Vlatko, a bulky pale-haired Serb detective who Pavlic elects his number two when he and Costa set about rounding up potential Army opponents of the Yugoslav coup (p.239).

Credit

Spies of The Balkans by Alan Furst was published in 2010 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2011 Phoenix paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe. (390 pages)
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night – A year in the life of French movie producer Jean Casson, commencing on the day the Germans invade in June 1940, following his ineffectual mobilisation into a film unit which almost immediately falls back from the front line, his flight, and return to normality in occupied Paris where he finds himself unwittingly caught between the conflicting claims of the Resistance, British Intelligence and the Gestapo. (304 pages)
1999 Red Gold – Sequel to the World At Night, continuing the adventures of ex-film producer Jean Casson in the underworld of occupied Paris and in various Resistance missions across France. (284 pages)
2000 Kingdom of Shadows – Hungarian exile in Paris, Nicholas Morath, undertakes various undercover missions to Eastern Europe at the bidding of his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, a kind of freelance espionage controller in the Hungarian Legation. Once more there is championship sex, fine restaurants and dinner parties in the civilised West, set against shootouts in forests, beatings by the Romanian police, and fire-fights with Sudeten Germans, in the murky East.
2003 Blood of Victory – Russian émigré writer, Ilya Serebin, gets recruited into a conspiracy to prevent the Nazis getting their hands on Romania’s oil, though it takes a while to realise who’s running the plot – Count Polanyi – and on whose behalf – Britain’s – and what it will consist of – sinking tugs carrying huge turbines at a shallow stretch of the river Danube, thus blocking it to oil traffic. (298 pages)
2004 Dark Voyage – In fact numerous voyages made by the tramp steamer Noordendam and its captain Eric DeHaan, after it is co-opted to carry out covert missions for the Allied cause, covering a period from 30 April to 23 June 1941. Atmospheric and evocative, the best of the last three or four. (309 pages)
2006 The Foreign Correspondent – The adventures of Carlo Weisz, an Italian exile from Mussolini living in Paris in 1938 and 1939, as Europe heads towards war. He is a journalist working for Reuters and co-editor of an anti-fascist freesheet, Liberazione, and we see him return from Civil War Spain, resume his love affair with a beautiful German countess in Nazi Berlin, and back in Paris juggle conflicting requests from the French Sûreté and British Secret Intelligence Service, while dodging threats from Mussolini’s secret police.
2008 The Spies of Warsaw The adventures of Jean Mercier, French military attaché in Warsaw between autumn 1937 and spring 1938, during which he has an affair with sexy young Anna Szarbek, helps two Russian defectors flee to France, is nearly murdered by German agents and, finally, though daring initiative secures priceless documents indicating german plans to invade France through the Ardennes – which his criminally obtuse superiors in the French High Command choose to ignore!
2010 Spies of the Balkans The adventures of Costa Zannis, senior detective in the north Greek port of Salonika, who is instrumental in setting up an escape route for Jews from Berlin through Eastern Europe down into Greece and then on into neutral Turkey. The story is set against the attempted Italian invasion of Greece (28 October 1940) through to the German invasion (23 April 1941).
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst (2008)

Furst has written 14 spy novels set in or around Eastern Europe in the late 1930s when the clouds of war were gathering over the continent. The last seven or so have appeared at nice regular two-year intervals, conform to a nice predictable formula and his readers can look forward to the usual predictable pleasures.

Hero There’ll be a central male protagonist – as the novels have gone by these have tended to become steadily posher, so this one is Jean-François Mercier de Boutillon, 46, whose ancient family long ago lost their noble title and vast lands, and so is now plain Colonel Mercier. Mercier fought and was wounded in the Great War, and then in the 1920 Russian invasion of Poland, alongside the rather better-known de Gaulle. He was given a medal by the Polish government and partly because of that has ended up serving as French military attaché in Warsaw. He is tall, dark and handsome, walks with a slight limp from a war wound, because of which he sometimes uses an elegant silver-topped cane – but he nurses a secret sorrow: his beautiful wife, Annemarie, died suddenly three years earlier of influenza (p.55). Luckily his height, good looks, aristocratic bearing and independent means have kept in a regular supply of young lovelies to console him. His daughter, Gabrielle, thinks he is irresistible (p.190).

Sex The male protagonist usually has an easygoing way with women and enjoys soft porn sex with at least one round-bottomed young lady during the course of the book. For example, after a tennis match at the country house of Polish aristocrat Prince Kazimierz, Mercier is in the shower when the door to the bathroom opens and the lovely Princess Antoniwa enters, lets her robe slip to the floor, before stepping into the steamy shower to join him. You can almost hear Je t’aime playing on the movie soundtrack as they enjoy literally steamy sex. Later, we are treated to a description of his initiation into the joys of mutual masturbation by an older cousin, Albertine, when he was a teenager (pp.121-124).

High society Prince Kazimierz. Princess Antoniwa. Country houses. Mercier’s own upbringing at boarding school, the huge family apartment in the snobby 7th arrondissement of Paris. Part of Mercier’s job is to attend cocktail parties given by the various embassies, meeting and remeeting the beau monde of Warsaw. ‘Daaahling, have another one of these simply delicious canapés.’

Espionage One of Mercier’s jobs is managing ‘agents’. The one who features in this book is a shabby German businessman, Edvard Uhl, who works in the giant Krupps arms manufacturers. He was picked up by one of Mercier’s ‘honey trap’ woman agents, and has now been blackmailed / seduced into travelling once a month to Warsaw where he a) has hot, giggling rumpy-pumpy with the supposed ‘Countess Sczelenska’ (real name Hana Musser, a half-Czech, half-German refugee from the ‘fulminous Nazi politics’ of the Sudetenland), and b) the following day meets Mercier to hand over blueprints and diagrams about German tanks, and receive a packet of collars in return. But Uhl is getting increasingly nervous…

Paris Furst has acknowledged his debt to Eric Ambler who wrote half a dozen spy thrillers set in Eastern Europe, actually during the last years of the 1930s, with brilliantly atmospheric evocations of Eastern and MittelEuropa. Following the master, his stories are set outside the Anglophone comfort zone of Britain or the USA, instead among the capital cities and fog-shrouded landscapes of Hungary, Turkey, Serbia, Romania or, in this case, Warsaw.

However, although the adventures often take place in remote parts of Eastern Europe, the texts’ centre of gravity is nearly always the European city Furst which lived in for years and where his heart obviously belongs – lovers’ Paris, the Paris where French movie producer Jean Casson, Hungarian exile Nicholas Morath, Russian émigré Ilya Serebin, and Italian foreign correspondent Carlo Weisz (the heroes of his previous novels) all have apartments regularly adorned by nubile young ladies, and where they depart from for foreign adventures before gratefully returning in various states of disrepair. Paris is the meta-location of these novels, thus Mercier feels ‘the Parisian mystique take hold of his heart: a sudden nameless ecstasy in the damp air’, as soon as he is back there (p.119).

Datestamps As usual the novel is divided into a handful of long parts or acts – in this case, four – each made up of numerous much shorter sections, often marked with a date stamp to give a sense of the urgent passage of time, of the ominous forward momentum of events. The earliest is 17 October 1937, the last one 9 May 1938.


1. Hotel Europejski

It is autumn 1937. Herr Uhl, happily married with kids, makes excuses to visit the factory down on the Polish border once a month but in fact pops over to Warsaw, checks into the Hotel Europejski and has championship sex with the plump, big-bottomed ‘Countess Sczelenska’. Colonel Mercia is French military attaché to Warsaw. We meet him playing tennis with the cream of Warsaw’s cosmopolitan high society at the rich country mansion of Prince Kazimierz.

Mercier is the ‘control’ of Herr Uhl, meets him in a seedy café in a working class quarter, pays him money, takes diagrams of German tank technology. Later Mercier packs night wear and a revolver and is driven by Marek, the loyal Polish chauffeur, down to Katowice on the German border where he and Marek crawl at night through the various lines of barbed wire, before a searchlight goes on and they have to shoot their way out and back to the Polish side. The tank traps which used to feature in these defences have been filled in: Why? To make them easier for tanks to cross. Why? When? Puzzling.

Uhl gets panicky on the train back into Germany and becomes convinced ‘they’ ie the Gestapo, are waiting for him at passport control. He dodges out of the queue waiting to hand over their passports, nips back under the train to steps down to the river and walks back to the previous station. But this suspicious activity was noticed and reported, a report which eventually percolates up to Sturmbannführer (Major) August Voss in local Sicherheitsdienst (SD) headquarters at Glogau. It takes them a while but his operatives eventually match the description of a pot-bellied businessman with a big knobby nose who behaved suspiciously with Uhl.

Thus, after Mercier’s next rendezvous with Uhl a month later, Mercier, leaving the rendezvous cafe separately, accidentally sees Uhl being forcefully chatted up by a stunning blonde and tails the pair back to a rent-by-the-hour hotel in the red light district. But when the blonde comes running downstairs ten minutes later, and is followed by a big goon carrying a package wrapped in bedsheets, Mercier intervenes, there’s a fight, the Krauts make off in a getaway car and Mercier unwraps the roped-up bedsheets to discover Uhl inside, almost dead. Not quite. He is spirited away to hospital.

In a different plotline – Mercier is invited to a diplomatic reception given to entertain businessmen from the French company Renault, who are trying to sell the Polish government armaments. His regular consort drops out and at suggests a replacement, the girlfriend of a Russian émigré writer (Maxim Mostov), the young and lovely Anna Szarbek, who works for the League of Nations as a lawyer. Guess what happens, go on, guess. Yes, they fall in love and thus begins a passionate love affair set against the looming threat of war!

Among Mercier’s routine chores are regular meetings with his opposite number, Colonel Anton Vyborg, who we’ve already met in Furst’s novels Dark Star and The Polish Officer, both set a few years later, after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. In one meeting Mercier admires a map which Vyborg casually mentions was drawn up by Captain de Milja of the Geographical Section (p.222). Alert readers will remember that this same de Milja is the Polish Officer in the novel of the same name. If the reader had read either of those novels he would have a strong sense of the doom which all these characters are heading towards…

Mercier is reprimanded by the Ambassador for the diplomatic embarrassment of ‘the Uhl Affair’, and is recalled to Paris to explain.

2. On Raven Hill

Paris, where almost all Furst’s novels start and end. Mercier returns to the huge apartment in the 7th arrondissement and bumps into cousin Albertine, the one who initiated him into the joys of sex when he was an innocent 14-year-old. Now she is formal, polite, friendly – but with a teasing hint of flirtation…

Mercier has a formal interview with Colonel Bruner who reprimands him for causing a scene and losing an agent. Meanwhile, in Berlin, Sturmbannführer August Voss has his ear bitten off by his boss about the cack-handed fiasco with Uhl. Infuriated Voss had had one of his thugs identify who it was who interfered in the street, i.e. he has got Mercier in his sights.

In every single one of Furst’s novels he mentions the fictional Brasserie Heininger, the supposedly upmarket, must-be-seen-at Paris nightclub and restaurant. In Night Soldiers it was the scene of an exciting and thrilling shootout, when the Bulgarian head waiter was assassinated for interfering in politics by assassins who then shot the place up and the owners left one mirror, cracked by a bullet hole, in place as a memento, the table beneath it, table 14, quickly becoming the most fashionable one to dine at.

But whereas in Night Soldiers the actual event was part of a genuinely gripping narrative about the criminal and espionage underworld of Paris, repetition of this story has made it boring and banal, and it is now getting irritating (p.137). Mercier is taken to the Brasserie for lunch by Aristide de Beauvilliers, the intellectual on the French High Council for War who, of course, insists on sitting at the famous table and telling him the story of the bullet hole – yawn.

Mercier reports that Uhl was due to go watch German tank manoeuvres at a place called Schramberg. He’s been reading the German General Guderian’s book about tank tactics, Achtung – Panzer! He’s come to the conclusion that the Germans will attack through Belgium, north of France’s supposedly impenetrable Maginot Line. De Beauvilliers agrees but explains that the French Army is in the grip of old men who think they’re infallible. Pétain, hero of Verdun, has ridiculed the Ardennes theory, so it is squashed. Meanwhile, French politicians are so polarised that no decisions, no funding for the Army, is forthcoming. We readers know all this means France will be conquered in a matter of weeks by Hitler’s Blitzkrieg in June 1940.

Mercier returns to Warsaw. He attends another reception where he is anxious to see whether Anna Szarbek will attend. She does. His heart soars. Walking her back to her apartment they are caught in a sudden snowstorm and duck into a cinema where they end up snogging. He sees her to her door where she is charmingly shy and conflicted about whether they should see each other again. Women, huh?

In action mode, Mercier slips into civilian clothes, flies to Switzerland, is briefed by a useful fellow official at the French consulate there, given a pistol, maps, compass and then driven by a reliable local, Stefan, across the border to Schramberg. He makes his own way out to the test zone, hides and then observes the German tank manoeuvres for himself.

3. The Black Front

Mercier celebrates Christmas and New Year at his estate back in southern France. The loyal family retainers. The loyal hunting dogs. Mass at the local church with the surviving relations, including an irritating right-wing uncle. Then, gratefully, back to Warsaw. Mercier sends his report of the German tank manoeuvres to Paris. De Beauvilliers hints that it will be ignored by the foolish high command.

Mercier receives a clandestine plea from the two Russian diplomats who he’s always meeting at receptions, a Jewish couple, Viktor and Malka Rozen. They have been ordered back to Moscow. They know they will be interrogated and shot. They wish to defect. He checks with his superiors, then makes an appointment to meet them, but they don’t show.

In Paris Madame Dupin had told him about a League of Nations conference to do with laws surrounding national minorities and refugees. He immediately wonders whether Anna will be going and, if so, she will be free from the clutches of the Russian boyfriend. He arranges with his bosses to go, impatiently and excitedly boards the train and – lo and behold! – she is on it and – quelle surprise! – they are soon in her overnight compartment where he quickly finds out she has ‘small breasts in a lacy black bra’ (p.216) among other discoveries.

Back in Warsaw, Mercier returns to routine work: a letter from Uhl, now recovered, saying he is being sent to safety in Quebec, with a new identity and job. Meetings. Colonel Vyborg invites him to a private meeting and tells him he is under surveillance by people attached to the German embassy. Neither of them know they are thugs hired by Sturmbannführer Voss, the angry man humiliated in the Uhl fiasco.

One night there is a frantic beating at the door and it is Madame Rozen. This sparks the most exciting passage in the novel as she has fled the embassy, but her husband twisted an ankle and is in a park up the road. It is midnight. Mercier packs his Browning pistol and makes his way through the deserted streets, making the reader as tense as he is. He finds Rozen, becoming incoherent with the freezing cold, and supports him all the way back to his apartment, with one interruption. An angry man steps out to confront them but Mercier waves his gun and the man strolls away. From the description, the reader suspects it is Voss not anybody from the NKVD who might be tailing the Rozens.

Mercier calls the embassy and his people put in place a successful operation to exfiltrate the two Russians, his boss Jourdain, the embassy chauffeur Marek, a motorcycle guard, they drive out to a remote airfield where a plane arrives bearing Colonel Bruner, Mercier’s boss, all the way from Paris. The Rozens climb into it and it departs. Panic over. Mercier returns to his apartment for a well-earned kip.

Next night he entertains Anna to dinner and Furstian sex. She has moved out of the apartment she shared with the Russian writer. They are now definitely an item.

At a diplomatic dinner given by the Portuguese embassy, Mercier is surprised to find himself in conversation with the courtly old Dr Lapp, a German businessman assumed to have some part in the Abwehr or German intelligence. Very slyly he indicates that he is a true German patriot and not so keen on the present regime. Shall we meet again, somewhere more private? Mercier repeats the conversation to his boss who points out that he’s becoming quite the spymaster. It was the incident of saving Uhl from being abducted by the Germans; everybody heard about it and everybody deduced his role.

4. A Shadow of War

March 1938. Mercier, in his capacity as military attaché, goes on a typically boring trip to a Polish arms, armoured car and light tank factory, the Ursus Tractor Company in the suburb of Wola. Mercier leaves the factory after a long, exhaustive tour but his faithful driver Marek is not waiting as they’d arranged. Instead, out of the shadows emerge three menacing figures who, before, he can react, surround Mercier and start beating him up, whipping him with a horsewhip, punching and kicking to the ground. It’s looking bad for our hero when a shot rings out and the bad guys desist the beating and run off. The gun was fired by Marek the driver who comes running up to his boss and helps him to his feet. He describes how he’d parked a few streets away and had himself been approached by a thug who drew a gun. Being the sturdy dependable type he is, Marek simply shot this figure.

The reader knows the three assailants are Major Voss and two of his SD thug pals. Voss is very angry at Mercier for interfering in the abduction of Uhl, and blames him for his recent transfer to a small provincial town, Schweinfurt. This demotion was the last straw had determined him to travel to Warsaw with two drinking buddies and ugly bullies from the SD – Meino and Willi – fired up by fantasies of kidnapping Mercier and torturing him, maybe in front of his pretty girlfriend. They were met off the train and driven around by local German thug, Winckelmann, and this is the man who approached Marke threateningly and who Marek shot dead.

Safely back in the centre of town, Mercier is tended by Anna. A few days later he has the planned meeting with Dr Lapp. Mercier passes on the message he has been given by his bosses that Dr Lapp should travel to Paris and phone the number he hands him. He’ll be met by the sophisticated de Beauvilliers and discussion about recruiting him will proceed from there. But Mercier has his own agenda. Running like an unobtrusive thread has been gossip and speculation about a shadowy organisation that opposes the Nazis from within, in fact which originated within the Nazi party itself. Initially, there was a genuinely socialist wing of the party, which wanted to do away with big industrialists, redistribute wealth to the workers and so on. But Hitler needed rich backers and so, in the Night of The Long Knives in July 1934, he had most of the leaders of the Sturmabteilung (SA) murdered.

But some survived and went underground in what is rumoured to call itself the Black Front. Now Mercier asks Lapp about a name he has heard, a Halbach. Lapp is reluctant to speak, but eventually says, yes it still exists, in feeble shape. Halbach lives under a pseudonym in a Czech border town, writing anti-Nazi pamphlets.

Mercier plans what will be the final sequence in the novel. He gets funds from de Beauvilliers, and maps, and takes local trains to the little town where he confronts Halbach, saying he knows his real identity but – relax! don’t panic! – is offering him the chance for a new, faked Swiss identity, to escape before the Gestapo find him. He just needs his help tracking down another Black Front colleague, known as Hans Köhler. Halbach tells him that Köhler’s real name is Johannes Elter.

Mercier takes Halbach to Prague to get a new passport and identity, buys a decent second-hand car and drives the pair of them across the border, on a tense car journey all the way to Berlin, where Elter lives. They stay overnight in a rough brothel, visited by drunk SS men. Next day Mercier drives Halbach to the converted church where he knows he is part of a model railway club (!). Elter is shocked to see his old comrade. In private, Halbach explains that the Gestapo are moving in but that he, Halbach, has found a sponsor who can guarantee safety. All he must do is bring all the secret documents he can get his hands on from office I.N.6, the section of Military Intelligence dedicated to making plans against France, to a certain hotel the next day.

It’s a lot for Elter to take in but he handles Halbach’s passport, is shown the money, and promises to be at the bar the next evening. Halbach returns to Merciers car and they drive north for three hours to the port of Rostock where Halbach catches the ferry to Denmark, to be a free man, his job done. Mercier returns and checks into the grand hotel where, the next evening, exactly on time, Elter appears with a heavy briefcase. Mercier takes him up to his bedroom, hands him passport and cash. The pair stand in the darkened room. For a moment I thought the door was about to burst open and the Gestapo rush in but in fact Elter hesitantly says that, if there’s more money, he’s prepared to do this some more. Mercier, momentarily wrong-footed, quickly agrees. They part.

Mercier examines his haul. 73 documents ranging from the trivial to maps of the Ardennes with attack routes sketched. Next day he flies from Tempelhof airport to Le Bourget with the docs in a fake bottomed briefcase, and by taxi to the French High Command. Waits several days. When he is called in for an interview, his colleague de Beauvilliers offers him a job with his small intelligence unit in Paris. But his boss, Colonel Bruner, genial and pleased, congratulates him, confirms his promotion to colonel and then floats the theory that maybe the whole thing was a set-up: Halbach an imposter, Elter a fake, the documents a deliberate decoy, part of a canny plan to deceive the French.

Disgusted Mercier catches a cab back to the family apartment where cousin Albertine is getting drunk with Anna who he’s brought along for the trip.

The novel ends with a short paragraph explaining how, 24 months later, General Guderian did invade France through the ‘impenetrable’ Ardennes, to the north of the supposedly ‘impregnable’ Maginot Line, leading France to capitulate within weeks and establish the pro-Nazi Vichy regime.


Dramatis personae

Listing them makes you realise just how many interesting and credible characters Furst creates in each of his novels. The sheer number, and the complex ways they overlap and interact, feed into the larger webs and networks of characters which recur across the novels, themselves symbolic or embodying the complex web of diplomatic, espionage and intelligence manoeuvring across pre-war Europe.

  • Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-François Mercier de Boutillon, French military attaché to Warsaw.
  • Annemarie, his fragrant wife, who died three years earlier.
  • Gabrielle, lovely daughter number one.
  • Béatrice, daughter number two, living in Cairo.
  • Albertine, cousin who initiated him into the joy of sex.
  • Prince Kazimierz, member of Polish aristocracy.
  • the lovely Princess Antoniwa, ditto.
  • Edvard Uhl, businessman and industrial spy for Mercier.
  • ‘Countess Sczelenska’, real name Hana Musser, refugee from the Sudetenland, honey trap mistress of Uhl.
  • Sturmbannführer (Major) August Voss, permanently angry head of the SD in Glogau, who is handed the report about the suspicious behaviour of Uhl on the train back into Germany, whose agents track him down and are about to abduct him from a Warsaw hotel when Mercier intervenes to rescue Uhl – leading to Voss being reprimanded – which leads to his vendetta against with Mercier.
  • Winckelmann, one of his thugs in Warsaw.
  • Meino and Willi, thuggish SD friends Voss travels to Warsaw with to beat up Mercier.
  • Marek, Mercier’s loyal embassy driver.
  • Wlada, Mercier’s skinny nervous housekeeper at his Warsaw apartment.
  • Anna Szarbek, lawyer for the League of Nations, who Mercier falls in love with.
  • Maxim Mostov, Russian émigré writer and journalist, who is upset when Anna leaves him for Mercier, and then is exposed, along with many others, by the intelligence handed over by the Rozens (see below) as a spy, and so deported from Poland back to the USSR.
  • Colonel Anton Vyborg, Mercier’s opposite number in the Polish military, with whom he has regular meetings, Vyborg featured in Furst’s earlier novels, Dark Star and The Polish Officer.
  • Captain de Milja of the Geographical Section of Polish Intelligence, mentioned in an off-hand reference by Vyborg, he was the lead figure in Furst’s earlier novel, The Polish Officer.
  • Jourdain, Mercier’s colleague at the French embassy in Poland.
  • The French ambassador to Poland.
  • Colonel Bruner, Mercier’s superior at the Quai d’Orsay back in Paris.
  • Madame Dupin, assistant director of Protocol.
  • de Beauvilliers, the 60-year-old intellectual on the French High Council for War, politely dismissive of the current French Army leadership under the hero of the Great War, old General Pétain.
  • Viktor and Malka Rozen, two Jewish Russian agents in Warsaw who Mercier helps to escape when their own government turns against them.
  • Colonel de Gaulle, Mercier’s contemporary at the St Cyr military college, and with whom he shared adventures as French representative to the army of General Pilsudski during the Russo-Polish war of 1920.
  • General Guderian, theorist of tank-led Blitzkrieg.
  • Stefan, drives Mercier from the French embassy in Switzerland across the German border to Schramberg, where Mercier observes Wehrmacht tank manoeuvres in the snow.
  • Dr Lapp, a German businessman who looks like Buster Keaton, is assumed to have some part in the Abwehr or German intelligence, who approaches Mercier at a diplomatic dinner, apparently offering to hand over intelligence.
  • Halbach, member of the underground anti-Nazi movement, the Black Front.
  • Elter, fellow member of the Black Front who Halbach persuades to smuggle documents out of the French section of German High Command headquarters in Berlin.

Credit

The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst was published in 2008 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2009 Phoenix paperback edition.

BBC mini-series

The Spies of Warsaw was adapted by the BBC into a two-part mini-series for TV, snappily retitled Spies of Warsaw and starring a post-Dr Who David Tennant as the dashing Colonel Mercier.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe. (390 pages)
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night – A year in the life of French movie producer Jean Casson, commencing on the day the Germans invade in June 1940, following his ineffectual mobilisation into a film unit which almost immediately falls back from the front line, his flight, and return to normality in occupied Paris where he finds himself unwittingly caught between the conflicting claims of the Resistance, British Intelligence and the Gestapo. (304 pages)
1999 Red Gold – Sequel to the World At Night, continuing the adventures of ex-film producer Jean Casson in the underworld of occupied Paris and in various Resistance missions across France. (284 pages)
2000 Kingdom of Shadows – Hungarian exile in Paris, Nicholas Morath, undertakes various undercover missions to Eastern Europe at the bidding of his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, a kind of freelance espionage controller in the Hungarian Legation. Once more there is championship sex, fine restaurants and dinner parties in the civilised West, set against shootouts in forests, beatings by the Romanian police, and fire-fights with Sudeten Germans, in the murky East.
2003 Blood of Victory – Russian émigré writer, Ilya Serebin, gets recruited into a conspiracy to prevent the Nazis getting their hands on Romania’s oil, though it takes a while to realise who’s running the plot – Count Polanyi – and on whose behalf – Britain’s – and what it will consist of – sinking tugs carrying huge turbines at a shallow stretch of the river Danube, thus blocking it to oil traffic. (298 pages)
2004 Dark Voyage – In fact numerous voyages made by the tramp steamer Noordendam and its captain Eric DeHaan, after it is co-opted to carry out covert missions for the Allied cause, covering a period from 30 April to 23 June 1941. Atmospheric and evocative, the best of the last three or four. (309 pages)
2006 The Foreign Correspondent – The adventures of Carlo Weisz, an Italian exile from Mussolini living in Paris in 1938 and 1939, as Europe heads towards war. He is a journalist working for Reuters and co-editor of an anti-fascist freesheet, Liberazione, and we see him return from Civil War Spain, resume his love affair with a beautiful German countess in Nazi Berlin, and back in Paris juggle conflicting requests from the French Sûreté and British Secret Intelligence Service, while dodging threats from Mussolini’s secret police.
2008 The Spies of Warsaw The adventures of Jean Mercier, French military attaché in Warsaw between autumn 1937 and spring 1938, during which he has an affair with sexy young Anna Szarbek, helps two Russian defectors flee to France, is nearly murdered by German agents and, finally, though daring initiative secures priceless documents indicating german plans to invade France through the Ardennes – which his criminally obtuse superiors in the French High Command choose to ignore!
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

The Drowned and The Saved by Primo Levi (1986)

This book means to contribute to the clarification of some aspects of the Lager phenomenon which still appear obscure. It also sets for itself a more ambitious goal: it will try to answer the most urgent question, the question which torments all those who happened to read our accounts. How much of the concentration camp world is dead and will not return, like slavery and the duelling code? How much is back or is coming back? What can each of us do, so that in this world pregnant with threats, at least this threat will be nullified? (p.9)

The four books of Levi’s I’ve read so far concern themselves overwhelmingly with named individuals and specific events. This, Levi’s final book, is the opposite. It is an attempt to deliver his thoughts and conclusions on the issues raised by the Holocaust in general form. It is made up of ruminations and meditations and speculations, touching on the function of memory, on group and individual psychology, on sociology and anthropology, as they relate to ‘the Offence’.

The paradoxical enjoyment to be got from The Truce or Moments of Reprieve is the way they record the life-enhancing varieties of human behaviour – the endless scams of the scheming Cesare or the unexpected moment of generosity when the Hungarian inmate Bandi shares with Levi his only vegetable, a radish.

By contrast, there are hardly any moments of reprieve or tall stories in The Drowned and The Saved. Instead you can see how Levi has ordered decades’ worth of thoughts and reflections under seven general topic headings and then, within them, tried to arrange his thoughts into a logical order.

However, the rather padded prose style, often embellished with literary references, which suits the creation of fictional characters – which allows him to circle and describe them from numerous angles – is less suited to logical argument. I frequently found myself having to read pages twice to understand what he was trying to say. And then realising that a lot of his conclusions aren’t that earth-shattering. A feature of the book is the repetition of thoughts and ideas he’s mentioned elsewhere previously.

1. The Memory of the Offence

Memory isn’t perfect, it decays. Many Nazis brought to trial denied they knew the full extent of the Holocaust, showing how some people create self-serving lies which they end up believing. People who’ve been through traumatic events often block them out, both victims and perpetrators. You can prevent undesirable memories from even being formed by not even letting events enter your consciousness – thus the Nazis laid on plenty of booze for their death squads, who often killed in a drunken haze. And they gave all the techniques of murder harmless euphemisms, ‘relocation’ = transfer to death, ‘labour centre’ = death camps, ’emergency units’ = death squads. At a macro level, the entire Nazi regime was an Orwellian exercise in forgetting, terrorising the population into not even being able to speak about events they had witnessed or learned about. And of course, at the end the Nazis tried to blot out memories of the death camps by a) dismantling and obliterating them b) killing all the inmates – the real purpose of the long, pointless forced marches west.

Thus memory was attacked at every level by the genocidal Nazi regime and thus the vital importance, to the survivors, of bearing witness. Well aware that all these psychological frailties apply to his own memories, Levi has checked them against the external facts, documentary evidence, other people’s accounts, in order to validate them.

2. The Grey Zone

The young want there to be heroes and villains in black and white. But the point of the complex regimes in the camp (or Lager as Levi calls it, using its German name) was that everyone was compromised. The system was designed and to degrade everyone, to imbrue everyone with the fathomless evil of the National Socialist system. The arrival ritual was precisely that: from word go arrivals were confused, stripped naked, shaved, given a cold bath, tattooed and shouted at, beaten and kicked. Where they hoped for some solidarity, from fellow wearers of the striped pyjamas, there was often the most violent abuse and betrayal, as the Jewish Kapos or overseers were the most vicious of all. Any attempt to stand up to power and privilege was immediately decimated, witness the sturdy Jew who returned the blow of a Kapo who casually hit him at the first meal break; all the nearby Kapos swooped across, enraged at t his show of insubordination, and together they drowned him in the soup cauldron. Levi considers the nature of the Sonderkommando, the work units selected to shovel gassed corpses into the ovens, and then to empty out the ashes, going through them for gold teeth or any other valuables. These were made of selected Jews – so that at one level Jews were doing it to themselves – just one of the many ways the SS devoted fiendish calculation to making sure that everyone was implicated, no-one could feel free or aloof from the system’s evil.

It is sometimes a little hard to follow the argument in this section, but then, abruptly, Levi ends it by cutting and pasting in the ten-page account from Moments of Reprieve of the strange fate of Chaim Rumkowski, a word-for-word copy of the earlier account. Unintentionally, this allows the reader to directly contrast Levi’s style when trying to write purely factual prose – full of insights but a little tortuous and hard to follow – with one of his person-based anecdotes, which is strange, luminous, haunting, powerful.

The mere fact that he is cutting and pasting a whole sequence from an earlier book suggests the struggle Levi himself had in ‘thinking through’ this imponderable subject matter. And makes it crystal clear to this reader, at least, which Levi he prefers, given the choice between factual Levi and story-telling Levi.

3. Shame

Literature, poetry and the movies all think that the moment of liberation is one of unspeakable joy. That’s not how it was for the prisoners of Auschwitz. Levi retells the moment he described at the start of The Truce in which four Russian horsemen ride into Auschwitz, the day after the Germans abruptly abandoned it. They sit silently on their horses, mute with shame, the same shame felt by the prisoners who stand dumb, empty, exhausted, their heads downcast. It is the shame, Levi explains, which the just man feels when confronted by a crime committed by another. Nobody cheered.

This shame of liberation had diverse elements which he tries to analyse. Shame to have been part of such a crime against humanity. Shame not to have resisted, no matter how futile resistance would have been (every attempt to escape or rise up was completely destroyed by the Nazis, all participants exterminated and others killed in reprisals). Shame to have survived and the gnawing nagging feeling which only grows with time that other, better, nobler colleagues and comrades died instead of you; that you are surviving in their place. The shame of standing by and watching others be beaten, kicked to the ground, drowned, kicked to death. The shame of not having found the time or energy to help the newcomers, those weaker than yourself.

Lots of forms of shame which go to explain why there was a rash of suicides after the Liberation, when everything should have been well. Because only with food, and energy, and the return of ‘civilised’ morality, did all these shames and humiliations return to plague the survivors, many of whom were overcome by the burden of bearing the guilt, day by day, minute by minute.

Why did Chaim the watchmaker and Szabo the Hungarian and Robert the Sorbonne professor and Baruch the docker all die and Primo the chemist survive? Why?

It gnaws at us; it has nestled deeply like a woodworm; it is not seen from the outside but it gnaws and rasps. (p.62)

4. Communicating

‘We are biologically and socially predisposed to communication’ (p.69) but communication was deliberately stifled in the Lager. The arrival ritual involved not only being stripped bare, forced to stand in a freezing barracks for hours, tattooed and beaten and kicked: it involved being shouted at by red-faced Germans who refused to speak any other language. Within days those of Levi’s Italian companions who didn’t understand this barracks German began to die, from failing to understand the countless petty regulations, and from failing to be able to talk to the existing old lags who gave advice about storing food, skipping some rules, which Kapo to avoid and so on, in Polish, Yiddish or French. For two or three pages Levi gives examples of the Lager-German which has, in fact, been identified by linguists as forming almost a distinct dialect of German – crude, brutal and deformed, designed to be shouted at Untermänner. (It is interesting how throughout this book, alongside references to other survivors’ accounts, he quotes from his own texts, almost as if they were by someone else.)

Like good health, the ability to communicate freely is something you only notice when it is taken away. As he told us in Moments of Reprieve, he was by a small miracle and via a chain of intermediaries, able to send and receive a letter from his mother, and this little fragment of communication with the outside world, the world of speech and affection and love, was one of the things that kept him alive.

5. Useless Violence

This section is more about the Nazis’ excess cruelty than violence: Levi uses as structure the novice’s journey to and induction into the camp. Thus, to start with, the inhuman callousness of stuffing human beings into unheated cattle tracks, packed beyond endurance. Thus the complete lack of facilities for journeys which sometimes took weeks. Those who didn’t go mad, were forced to poo and pee in front of everyone else as the start of their deliberate degradation. This open defecation continued in the camps as part of a process of dehumanisation. Ditto the frequent requirement for mass nudity – forced stripping upon arrival and in all subsequent cold shower or delousing procedures. Then the insane regulations like the compulsory making of beds in the morning (Bettenbauen), the standing in line for hours in the evening roll call, regardless of rain or snow. This and the mad system of tattoos – all designed, as Levi sees it, to be ‘gratuitous, an end in itself, pure offence’ (p.95).

One is truly led to think that, in the Third Reich, the best choice, the choice imposed from above, was the one that entailed the greatest amount of affliction, the greatest amount of waste, of physical and moral suffering. The enemy must not only die, but must die in torment. (p.96)

There is mention of the endless beatings, and a paragraph about the grisly ‘experiments’ some Germans carried out on live patients, but in general ‘violence’, in this section, is used in a psychological or moral, not a literal, sense.

6. The Intellectual in Auschwitz

Starts with a meditation on Hans Meyer, from an assimilated German Jewish family, who suffered under Germany’s anti-Semitic laws and so emigrated to Belgium where he fully espoused his ancestral Judaism until the Germans invaded, whereupon he was repatriated to Germany and thence deported to a series of concentration camps. Amazingly, he survived. Settling back in Belgium after the war Meyer changed his name to Jean Améry and, at the bidding of friends, finally wrote his searing camp memoir, Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne (‘Beyond Guilt and Atonement), translated into as At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities.

I was expecting there to be an investigation of Améry’s ideas or theories about the camps, but this biographical sketch leads into a series of fairly straightforward memories of how being a weedy intellectual was no preparation for the brutal life of the camp. Levi recalls being beaten up and forced to do manual labour with a shovel, an object he’d never even touched before. In other words the section amounts to anecdotes showing that being too scholarly was a definite disadvantage to survival in the Lager – it was the uneducated working men who survived the days and weeks.

This section makes clearer than ever that Levi is not an intellectual – i.e. he is not the exponent of a thought-out intellectual system: there is no consideration of the schools of thought prevailing in the Europe of the time, either Fascism, or communism or early existentialism or the Catholic movements of the 1930s. The opposite: Levi is an imaginative writer haunted by what he has endured and, instead of rational, consecutive thought, the laying out of a plan or theory – the text instead revisits stories and situations he’s already told us once or twice before in previous books, adding new details or aspects to already harrowing events, and proceeding by analogy with literary or cultural references, Dante, Homer, Leopardi.

This is a lowering and depressing book not just because of the subject matter but because the compulsive picking over of psychic injuries, the obsessive revisiting of the scene of the trauma (in this section he tells us again about Steinlauf the accountant, about strong Lorenzo the bricklayer, about the moment he, Levi, a lifelong agnostic, nearly prayed to God just before his ‘selection’). The obsessive repetition of these stories begins to convey the sense of a deeply damaged, unhappy man – maybe not in his public persona, but here, in the heart of his writing.

7. Stereotypes

In this section emerges one of the strongest themes of the book which, surprisingly, is ‘young people nowadays’. According to Levi, young people nowadays move in an atmosphere of complete freedom, healthy, wealthy, heirs to a cornucopia of consumerism. If they ever hear of ‘dictatorships’ it’s in far off countries which nobody has to visit if they don’t want to. Also they watch lots of movies, which – it goes without saying – reduce all human behaviour to the crudest stereotypes. He specifically mentions Papillon and The Bridge On The River Kwai. This superficiality explains why, at the schools and colleges which Levi visits to lecture, he always gets asked the same questions:

  1. Why didn’t you escape?
  2. Why didn’t you rebel?

The answers are:

  1. Because we were too weak, too demoralised, because escape was impossible (guards, dogs, machine guns) and escape where, exactly? All of Europe was occupied, all family had themselves been rounded up and imprisoned.
  2. For the above reasons but also, some did rebel. There were rebellions, notably at Birkenau, but they were quickly put down and everyone involved tortured and killed.

The thing about Levi’s answers is that we’ve read them before. The portmanteau edition of If This Is A Man/The Truce contains a 20-page afterword in which he lists eight Frequently Asked Questions, and these two – and the lengthy replies – top the list. He phrases them differently here, adds different emphases, new details – but the basic answers are the same.

8. Letters from Germans

The longest and least engaging article in this collection of articles. In the first pages it repeats the simple story of how If This Is A Man was initially brought out by a small publishing house which went out of business and so the book made little impression, before being taken up ten years later by a bigger firm in 1958. It tells how a German publisher approached Levi for permission to make a German translation; how Levi was full of trepidation about what to say to a German readership, but then was convinced when he received a long letter from the translator, giving details of his resistance to the Nazi regime. How the page or so which Levi wrote back to the translator explaining what he intended the book to do for its German audience was turned, with his permission, into the preface to the German edition. So much for the book’s publishing history.

Then Levi turns to the main purpose of this final section, which is to give excerpts from some of the 40 or so letters he received in the following years from his German readers. Some seemed to him cowardly evasions, some forthright admissions of guilt, and from the younger generation comes incomprehension at what their parents did. Levi prints lengthy excerpts from these letters alongside his thoughts and replies (where he entered into correspondence with them).

This dusty correspondence is, frankly, boring. It is an effort, for example, to read what a 20-something, German, evangelical Christian writing in 1965 thought her nation should do to ‘expiate’ the ‘sin’ of the Holocaust – and then reading Levi’s puzzled thoughts about her puzzling sentiments. History, our understanding of the context, subsequent events, and a comprehensive change in the way we discuss moral issues (i.e. with a lot less heavy Christian rhetoric) make almost all of these exchanges very dated, like reading dusty old Penguin paperbacks about the new theory of comprehensive education or how we must nationalise industry to create a better society. The tone and phraseology of the German letters and Levi’s replies, more than anything else in the book, make you realise how very long ago all this was.

It’s all a long way from the imaginative (and, therefore, for me, moral) immediacy of the characters in If Not Now, When? or the searing, awe-inspiring portraits captured in Moments of Reprieve.

9. Conclusion

A very short attempt to tie up issues which Levi has spent the whole book struggling to really get to grips with. He is painfully aware that it is all slipping into the past, that he is talking to the children or even grandchildren of victims and perpetrators and that, meanwhile, ‘the Offence’ is being overtaken by others – the Khmer Rouge, revelations about the Gulag – as well as all the pressing problems of the environment, the population explosion, the threat of nuclear extinction. In the face of all this, he makes the rather wan summary:

It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. (p.167)


Reflections

Dated When Levi wrote If This Is a Man in (1947 it was white-hot with the power (and slight incoherence) of the survivor struggling to marshal his memories into some kind of order. The controlled text of The Truce, begun at the same time (as he tells us in this book, p.54), was – when published 15 or so years later – still fresh and urgent, an early part of the great re-examination of the Holocaust which began in the 1960s.

However, by the 1980s when The Drowned and The Saved was published, there was a well-established and fast-growing body of work documenting the Holocaust – trials and depositions, books, research papers, institutes, museums, TV documentaries, movies – a corpus which has continued to grow at a steady rate.

And that was thirty years ago. Since then Holocaust studies have become a profitable industry, with historians, film-makers, curators and artists making a healthy living from it. The UK now has a National Holocaust Day. Many cities have Holocaust Museums. Both my children studied the Holocaust as part of their History GCSE. A review of a recent volume on The Historiography of the Holocaust indicates the breadth and scale of the modern Holocaust industry, which is discovering ever-new ramifications of the horror in order to define and write about and forge academic careers out of it. Levi’s book suffers by entering a field which was growing when it appeared and whose proleferation has long since dwarfed it.

Crowded out Unlike in his crucial memoirs (If This Is A Man and The Truce) or in his fiction (the brilliant If Not Now, When?), in this factual book you can feel Levi struggling against the pressure of other texts, other accounts, other studies and books and witness statements and interviews and documents. By 1986 his was far from being a unique voice. The text continually has to refer to other work which has been done on all the areas he mentions. And since he is not a professional historian, psychologist, economist, sociologist, lawyer and so on, the book sometimes suffers because you feel he is trying to say something authoritative in areas where he himself admits he is not an authority.

Empty It is possible that the Holocaust will eventually become such an everyday reference point that it becomes emptied of all content, ending up a cliché or cartoon. The most famous of all internet laws is Godwin’s Law, which states that the longer any discussion in an online forum or comments section goes on, the more likely it is that someone will insult someone else by comparing them to Hitler or the Nazis, and this is because it is seen as the ultimate, can’t get any lower, insult. But it has also devalued it as an insult.

This process has tended to empty references to the Nazis of any kind of historical context or complexity. And this steady process of emptying-out has rendered the term and reference, in my opinion, problematic as a tool for thinking about actual prejudice in the contemporary world, about the discrimination, the demonising and the blaming of minorities which is where the genocidal urge begins.

Its uniqueness makes it ineffectual as a warning In my opinion, asserting the uniqueness of the Nazis’ rise to power and the enormity of the Holocaust – the one-off nature of the attempt to exterminate an entire race on an industrial scale – has come to obscure the countless other ways in which such genocidal impulses can grow and be enacted.

All the Holocaust books and documentaries and school trips in the world didn’t prevent the Bosnian Serb Army rounding up 8,000 men from the town of Srebrenica, machine gunning them and burying them in a mass grave, in July 1995. It didn’t prevent up to a million ethnic Tutsi being hacked to death in the systematic genocide in the summer of 1994. Because we were looking for people with SS uniforms and Hitler moustaches, instead of being aware of the general conditions and pressures which foster the genocidal impulse.

As warnings, as explanations of the genocidal urge, I found Tom Snyder’s book Bloodlands and Keith Lowe’s book Savage Continent much more powerful. They:

a) are definitive historical overviews by professional historians, which
b) put the mass murder of the Jews into the context of the extremely complex tangle of politics and economics, the clash of ideologies and nationalisms, which tore Europe apart for a generation
c) and, crucially, give a bewildering range of examples of the lust to demonise and then kill ‘the other’ which occurred in almost all European societies, in all social groups, throughout the period

These two books, with the wealth of horrifying examples they give, are much more effective at highlighting the myriad ways in which the temptations to blame others, and especially the outcast, the poor and vulnerable, minorities, the ethnically different, for all our problems – the first step towards making active persecution thinkable and therefore possible – are there tempting all people in all societies which come under stress or pressure, not just the Germany of the 1930s.

Literature not logic In my first job, on an international affairs TV programme, the series editor – ex-BBC World Service – said, ‘Never read any factual books by literary authors; they always get it wrong.’ I did a Literature degree so I was affronted by this cavalier dismissal, but in the years afterwards quickly came to realise he was right. I remembered all this as I read The Drowned and The Saved. Levi is, of course, an indisputable and priceless witness to one of the greatest atrocities in world history.

His testimony, his witness, his recording of the facts and of the individuals he met who were obliterated and incinerated are a lasting memorial and achievement. But this book amounts to a series of articles. And the articles themselves are built by literary quotation and analogy and anecdote rather than by statistical or rigorous evidence.

Thus the first page of ‘Stereotypes’ asserts that people who are imprisoned have two responses afterwards: those who want to tell everything and those who remain silent. Really? His evidence for this is a Yiddish proverb – ‘It is good to talk about sorrows overcome’ (which he has already quoted in a previous book) – and two examples from literature: when Paolo tells Francesca in Dante’s Inferno that there is nothing so sad as recalling happy times in misery, Levi asserts that the opposite can also be true; and the urge to tell all is exemplified by the moment in The Odyssey when Odysseus feels the need to tell the whole story of his escape from Troy as soon as he is sat at the feasting table in the palace of the Phaeacians. For those of us who had the kind of education which included reading Dante and Homer, these references are warm and comforting: they create the sense that we are in a ‘civilised’, European culture. But they aren’t really evidence or proof of the initial assertion.

Similarly, at one of the many schools he’s visited, a little boy asks Levi to draw a sketch map of the camp on the blackboard, including location of the barbed wire, guardhouse, watchtowers and machine guns – he then patiently explains to Levi how he could have created an explosion in the guardroom, neutralised the patrolling dogs, disarmed the machine gun towers while colleagues cut a way through the wire with cutters they’d stolen from a workshop. Levi takes this endearing story as proof of the general assertion that the younger generation don’t understand what life was like in a concentration camp, and have an increasingly simplified, stereotypical view of history as a whole.

A slender example to hang such a sweeping conclusion on.

When he divides the questions he’s asked into the main three – ‘why didn’t you escape? why didn’t you rebel? why didn’t you flee Europe before it all happened?’ – he’s on more solid, not to say, well-trodden ground. And when he subdivides the answers to the three, you go along with the sub-divisions: these are questions he’s been answering for forty years and he structures the replies logically and effectively.

But then, suddenly, he devotes two pages to the historical figure of Mala Zimetbaum, a woman inmate who actually did manage to escape from a camp – Birkenau – and made it all the way to Czechoslovakia before being arrested at a border crossing, returned to the camp, and who, on the gallows, tried to slash her own wrists before she was hanged, and so was kicked and bludgeoned to death by the assembled Kapos and SS men.

These two pages (pp.126-127) leap out of the text with infinitely more power that the question-and-answer sections or the cosy literary analogies. The structuring generally works (in a rather obvious sort of way); the literary references are nice to pick up for those who like that kind of thing – but Mala Zimetbaum’s story is vital. It is these pen portraits from hell that Levi does so well, for which is books will endure.

Conclusion

Levi’s final book is a noble attempt to gather his thoughts about ‘the Offence’ into a systematic exposition, but it is competing in a very crowded field. It tends to work best when it sticks closest to the harrowing details of his own experiences and the stories of inmates he knew and, to a lesser extent, where it uses literary references and analogies to add dignity and depth to the psychological feel of suffering and immiseration, to the memories of abasement which ‘gnaw and rasp’ the text.

Densely written, sometimes confusingly laid out, The Drowned and The Saved gives the unhappy sense of a man struggling to understand the incomprehensible, repeatedly returning to the harrowing events, the tormented victims, the pointless rules, the excessive cruelty, worrying away at the evil which has infected his soul and which no amount of books or lectures can ever exorcise.


Credit

I sommersi e i salvati by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1986. The English translation by Raymond Rosenthal was published by Michael Joseph in 1988. All references are to the 1990 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La treguaThe Truce (trans: 1965) The story of Levi’s eight-month-long trek back from Auschwitz to Turin, via an unexpected through Russia and Eastern Europe.
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986) 15 short anecdotes or vignettes about people in Auschwitz, some shedding fresh light on characters we met in the earlier books.
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988)
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

Moments of Reprieve by Primo Levi (1986)

After Levi had written and published If This Is A Man and The Truce in the late 1950s/early 60s, he thought he’d done his duty – in them he had borne public witness to the misery and evil of Auschwitz concentration camp (where he was incarcerated from February 1944 to January 1945) and exorcised his own demons. But as the years passed, he discovered he was one of that group of people who can’t forget, whose memory of atrocity follows them everywhere.

These are things that I have written about elsewhere, but, strangely, with the passing of the years these memories do not fade, nor do they thin out. They become enriched with details I thought were forgotten, which sometimes acquire meaning in the light of other people’s memories, from letters I receive or books I read. (p.88)

And so he set down further memories in short anecdotes or vignettes which, when he came to review them, he realised each focused on one individual, and one particular moment, a ‘moment of reprieve’ from the general fate of immiseration and dehumanisation.

There are fifteen powerful ‘moments’ in this short book:

Rappoport’s Testament Little mud man Valerio and Levi are sheltering in a cellar during an air raid on the camp when they are joined by the giant, virile, healthy Pole Rappaport. As the bombs fall he tells them if either of them survive they can take his message to the outside world: he, cunning, manly Rappaport spent  his life drinking and eating and swiving and, if he meets Hitler in the next life, he’ll spit in his face because…’he didn’t get the better of me.’ With this text, Levi fulfils that debt.

The Juggler Working in another cellar, piling up cardboard tubes, Levi finds time to begin writing on a scrap of paper, a message to his mother. He is struggling to find the words when he is interrupted by ‘Eddy’, a Grüne Spitze, a Green triangle or German criminal, who is appointed Kapo of this work detail. Eddy slaps him a bit for doing something so illegal they could both be hanged if caught, then confiscates the scrap of paper and gets two independent Italian speakers to translate its contents. A few hours later he returns and give it back, apparently satisfied that it contained nothing subversive, and Levi wonders about the humanity hidden behind the Green Triangle

Lilith It starts raining and Levi takes shelter inside one of a pile of big metal pipes, bumping into the Tischler or carpenter. They watch a woman in a pipe opposite for a bit and this sparks off in the Tischler a colourful sequence of stories about the legendary Biblical figure of Lilith, second wife to Adam and, in the Tischler’s blasphemous version, of God himself!

A Disciple Amazingly, Levi manages to smuggle a letter out to a civilian who posts it to his mother – in hiding in Italy – who sends a reply via the same route. He shares this burning secret with a new arrival, one of the Hungarians, a happy healthy boy named Bandi who, in a radiant moment, crowns Levi’s happiness by making him the gift of… a radish.

Our Seal ‘Our seal’ is the nickname given to the enormous nose of a Berlin pharmacist named Wolf who is fond of humming the classics, even doing impersonations of different instruments. In the central scene he is persecuted by an inmate named Elias – ‘a Herculean dwarf’ (p.155) – for having scabies but trying to hide it, which ends with Elias attacking Wolf and tearing his short and trousers open for everyone to see the rash. Days later, on one of the rare Sunday afternoons off work, they all hear a strange haunting sound and go to discover Wolf has somehow acquired a violin and is playing a haunting solo and, lying on the ground spellbound and listening, is Elias.

The Gypsy An announcement is made that prisoners may write letters home (on certain, typically Teutonic precise conditions). Levi is pestered by fresh-faced young Grigo, the Gypsy, who is illiterate but begs him to write a long letter to his young fiancée, which proves tricky as Grigo only speaks Spanish (which Levi doesn’t understand) and the letter must be written in German (of which Levi only knows prison slang).

The Cantor and The Barracks Thief the new barracks chief is Otto, fifty, tall, corpulent, shouty like all Germans, but he surprises them with the tenderness he shows when he personally strips and washes down big, dumb Vladek, a Polish political prisoner, using warm water, a brush and then rags to clean him. This favourable impression is confirmed when Ezra, a watchmaker and cantor from a remote Lithuanian village, very politely asks if Otto can hold back his soup ration for a day, as it is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when Jews are not meant to eat or work. To everyone’s amazement, Otto is drawn into the maze of law and tradition which Ezra explains to him in great detail, so that he eventually agrees, gives him a generous soup portion and carefully stores it in his personal lock-up overnight. For Ezra, as Levi comments:

was heir to an ancient, sorrowful, and strange tradition, whose core consists in holding evil in opprobrium and in ‘hedging about the law’ so that evil may not flood through the gaps in the hedge and submerge the law itself. In the course of the millennia, around this core has become encrusted a gigantic proliferation of comments, deductions, almost maniacally subtle distinctions, and further precepts and prohibitions. And in the course of the millennia many had behaved like Ezra throughout migrations and slaughters without number. That is why the history of the Jewish people is so ancient, sorrowful, and strange. (p.82)

Last Christmas of the War Two stories: Levi is approached by one of the secretaries in the chemistry lab where he worked, who asks him to fix a puncture on her bicycle, a risky thing to do as he might be accused of stealing it, sabotaging it, or shirking his lab responsibilities. He does it and she rewards him with a hard-boiled egg and some sugar and a whispered comment that Christmas was coming. Was this a German… actually being sympathetic? In a separate development he is amazed to receive a small food parcel smuggled in from his mother and sister but then he and his partner, Alberto, are faced with the tragi-comic dilemma of hiding a surplus of food in an environment with absolutely no secrecy.

The Quiet City The grimmest story, this is a profile of a young chemist, Levi’s mirror image, Mertens – except he was a German and a Catholic who, after some hesitation, took a pay increase for moving to the unhealthy region of Upper Silesia with his young wife and working at a new chemicals factory there (the Buna factory at Auschwitz). Levi pieces together evidence about Mertens’ behaviour during this period from scattered friends and witnesses, which was assembled when he was questioned years later by a Jewish historian of the camps years later. Like most Germans, he parrots the usual lies: he knew nothing, he tried to help prisoners whenever he could, he didn’t know about the gas chambers, the crematorium etc etc. This is a rare case when Levi devotes an anecdote, a story, to a specific German – Mertens. (In If This is a Man the cold Nazi supervisor of the lab, Dr Pannwitz, is almost the only other Nazi to get this kind of treatment).

Small Causes Levi steals some pipettes from the lab and smuggles them back into the camp where he tries to sell them to the unimpressed Polish head of the infirmary who, in turn, gives him half a bowl of soup. Half? Yes, probably abandoned by a patient too sick to finish it. Too hungry to quibble Levi takes it back to his barrack and shares it with his bosom friend, Alberto. Sure enough Levi comes down with scarlet fever within a few days and ends up being moved to the infirmary. Here he remains during the crucial days when the Germans abruptly evacuate the camp to escape the advancing Russians, forcing all the ‘healthy’ inmates onto a long march west in which almost all of them die. His friend, Alberto, had scarlet fever as a child and so is immunised, and so is rounded up and goes on the march, disappearing forever. Levi never had scarlet fever, is sick, and survives. Such is the randomness of the universe.

The Story of Avrom Avrom was aged 13 in 1939, when his parents in Lvov were rounded up and murdered by the Nazis. Levi gives a potted history of how the boy survived in the criminal underworld, inveigles his way into the barracks of the Italian Army in Russia, returns with them to Italy, but is then rounded up with them by the Germans, jumps off the moving train taking them to the Fatherland with a letter of recommendation to the family of one of his fellow deportees who live in a remote Italian village. This family kindly put Avrom up and he finds himself, incongruously, becoming an assistant to the parish priest, until he helps a group of Czechs who’ve defected from the Germans head up into the mountains to become partisans, travels all over the mountains with them, becoming their trusted radio contact with the Allies, before returning to the cities in triumph at the Liberation. Now he lives modestly in Israel and is drafting notes about his life for his children and grandchildren. Quite simply, what a life story.

Tired of Imposture A summary of the adventures of Joel König (in fact told in his own memoir Escape From The Nazi Dragnets) in which young Jewish Joel manages to adopt numerous identities, eventually masquerading as a blonde Hitler Youth, smuggling himself from Berlin to Vienna, then into Hungary and Romania.

Cesare’s Last Adventure Levi has obviously kept in touch with Cesare, the rogue who accompanied him on his long bizarre journey east into Russia after their liberation from Auschwitz, as described in The Truce. Eventually, fed up with sitting in an endlessly delayed train in the Romanian mud, Cesare left his colleagues determined to fly back to Italy. He begged for a while, got together semi-smart clothes and set out to seduce a woman. Eventually he found one willing to be seduced, and conned her and her father into thinking he would marry her. He asked the father for an advance to find a job and then went straight to the airport and bought a ticket to Italy. On arrival he was arrested – turned out the father had given him counterfeit dollars, whether as a shrewd guess that Cesare was about to run out on him, or by accident, we don’t know to this day.

Lorenzo’s Return Lorenzo is a strong, silent Italian mason, working on the ‘outside’ of the camp, who gets to know Levi and brings him and his buddy, Alberto, a mess tin of soup hidden in a secret place every day. It is this extra soup which helps Levi survive through to the Liberation in January. He sets off to walk home and has an epic four-month trek, stopping to work as a mason on the way to earn money. He finally makes it back to his home village near Turin and works for a while, but he has seen too much of life and begins to fade. He gives up his lifelong trade of mason and lives by trading farmers’ produce, then becomes a complete nomad sleeping rough. Finally he stops wanting to live and although Levi has, by this stage tracked him down, and arranges for him to go into hospital, they won’t give him wine so he leaves and dies rough. The tremendous Biblical nobility of strong, good Lorenzo and his eventual demolition, is taken as a slow-burning consequence of the evil he has seen. This story made me cry.

Story of a Coin Levi finds a coin in the ruins of bombed Auschwitz just before he is evacuated, slips it into his pocket without thinking and carries it round in his purse as a good luck charm. Years later he realises it was minted at the order of Chaim Rumkowski, a 60-year-old businessman who made himself into the ‘Emperor’ of the Lodz ghetto, one of the longest lasting of all the Polish-Jewish enclaves. Appointed by the Nazis as a useful puppet, he oversaw the working on starvation rations of over 100,000 imprisoned Jews while creating a court of lickspittles and toadies, and riding round his ’empire’ on a sledge pulled by a knackered horse. When the ghetto was finally wound up ie all the Jews were transported to death camps, Rumkowski secured his own carriage to ride in style to Auschwitz – but here he met the fate of all the other Jews. Levi is left pondering the story of this ridiculous and tragic figure, reminding us that:

Like Rumkowski, we too are so dazzled by power and money as to forget our essential fragility, forget that all of us are in the ghetto, that the ghetto is fenced in, that beyond the fence stand the lords of death, and not far away the train is waiting. (p.172)

Thoughts

Taken together, and especially the last few tales, prompt the question – Can the characters Levi describes really be the noble, upstanding heroes they appear in these stories? From time to time he makes comparisons with characters from classic literature, from Dante, the Bible and the prophets, from Homer. I think it’s impossible not to feel that Levi’s imagination, like theirs, has shaped and moulded what were once real people and real events into patterns which have a greater depth and resonance than normal life allows.

This activity, this deepening and widening and ennobling, is Levi’s characteristic achievement.


Credit

Lilìt e altri racconti (literally Lilith and other stories) by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1981. The English translation by Ruth Feldman was published by Michael Joseph in 1986. All references are to the 1987 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La treguaThe Truce (trans: 1965) The story of Levi’s eight-month-long trek back from Auschwitz to Turin, via an unexpected through Russia and Eastern Europe.
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986) 15 short anecdotes or vignettes about people in Auschwitz, some shedding fresh light on characters we met in the earlier books.
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988)
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

The Truce by Primo Levi (1963)

It was the shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after the selections [for the gas chamber], and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage: the shame the Germans did not know, that the just man experiences at another’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defence. (p.188)

Primo Levi was 24, a chemistry student from Turin, when he was shipped off to Auschwitz concentration camp in February 1944. Here he managed to survive for 11 months, until the Russians liberated the camp in February 1945, and eventually made it back to Turin, where he wrote his classic account of life and death in the camp, If This Is A Man. Initially published by a tiny publisher, which promptly went bankrupt, If This Is A Man didn’t make much impression until it was taken up by a larger concern and republished in 1958, and was translated into English the next year. Second time around it was a phenomenal success and prompted Levi to write a sequel, an account of what happened to him between the liberation and his final return to Turin. The Truce is that book, published in 1963, translated 1965.

The two books are so closely tied together in chronology, subject matter and theme that they are generally published together in one volume, like the 1987 Abacus paperback edition I refer to here.

The detour

The Truce is longer than If This Is A Man and, somewhat inevitably, a much more appealing and life-affirming read.

The key fact it records is that, instead of being shipped south and west back to Italy, through a series of accidents and what we come to think of as characteristic Russian chaos, Levi and his fellow Italian survivors of Auschwitz end up being shipped first north and then a long way east, deep into Russia – before things are finally sorted out and they return on a long and equally circuitous route via Romania and Hungary, back to Italy.

This means that, without wanting to, Levi ends up witnessing some of the chaos, the epic destruction, and the vast wanderings of millions of displaced persons, which characterised the post war months (and years). Levi and his comrades are just a handful of the what, according to Keith Lowe’s revelatory book Savage Continent, were an estimated 40 million displaced persons at the end of the war. They travel by train, on foot, in carts, across a landscape of devastation and confusion, of physical, economic and moral bankruptcy.

In those days and in those parts, soon after the front had passed by, a high wind was blowing over the face of the earth; the world around us seemed to have returned to primeval Chaos, and was swarming with scalene, defective, abnormal human specimens; each of them bestirred himself, with blind or deliberate movements, in anxious search of his own place, of his own sphere. (p.208)

Although, on a literal level, a straightforward account of what happened, this odyssey plays to Levi’s strengths – already in evidence in If This Is A Man

  • of creating pungent pen portraits of the enormous cast of heroes and villains, shysters and charlatans, victims and conquerors, thieves and innocents, which swarmed across the face of ruined Europe
  • and of sensing behind each individual, the laws of human nature, the deeper meanings, bodied forth by their stories

Levi’s people

In If This Is A Man an entire chapter is devoted to his attempts to remember perfectly his favourite canto from Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy. Dante poem notoriously functions on a host of levels, describing the poet’s personal, actual, physical journey down into hell and then back up through purgatory, to heaven – an obvious parallel to Levi’s descent into hell and then slow, healing return to ‘normality’. In his journey Dante meets a large number of real people, historical contemporaries as well as actual friends and family, who have died and find themselves in hell, purgatory or heaven. But these real people also embody spiritual and philosophical truths.

Though nowhere near as schematic – and devoid of any overt religious belief – Levi’s books nonetheless echo Dante’s technique of closely observing real actual people – but simultaneously seeing through them the broader ‘laws’ of human nature, finding in every individual an aspect of the ‘truth’, or – if there is no one Grand Truth – of making the reader see the truths of the human animal.

Reading the two books together gives you a sense of the kaleidoscopic variety of people and lives and strategies and ways of being in the world. There is a Shakespearean richness in the sheer range and breadth of people described, and in the neutrality, the objectivity, with which he observes and captures them. Take the Moor from Verona:

His real name was Avesani, and he came from Avesa, the launderers’ quarter of Verona… He was over seventy, and showed all his years; he was a great gnarled old man with huge bones like a dinosaur, tall and upright on  his haunches, still as strong as a horse, although age and fatigue had deprived his bony joints of their suppleness. His bald cranium, nobly convex, was encircled at its base with a crown of white hair; but his lean, wrinkled face was of a jaundice-like colour, wile his eyes, beneath enormous brows like ferocious dogs lurking at the back of a den, flashed yellow and bloodshot.

In the Moor’s chest, skeletal yet powerful, a gigantic but indeterminate anger raged ceaselessly; a senseless anger against everybody and everything, against the Russians and the Germans, against Italy and the Italians, against God and mankind, against himself and us, against day when it was day, and against night when it was night, against his destiny and all destinies, even though it was a trade that ran in his blood. He was a bricklayer; for fifty years, in Italy, America, France, then again in Italy, and finally in Germany, he had laid bricks, and every brick had been cemented with curses. He cursed continuously, but not mechanically; he cursed with method and care, acrimoniously, pausing to find the right word, frequently correcting himself and losing his temper when unable to find the word he wanted; then he cursed the curse that would not come. (pp.270-271)

There is immense authority in the flow of this prose, in the rhythm of the thought, and in the mighty and profound subject itself. In portraits like this, Levi gives us wonderful feel for humanity, for human beings in their rebarbative weirdness and variety. This human copiousness is the enduring effect of the book.

In the liberated camp

  • Old Thylle, a red triangle, a German political prisoner, one of the oldest inmates of the camp, who had never had to do manual labour.
  • Yankel, a young Russian Jew who, on the Liberation, is given the task of liaising with the inmates and also of driving the  horse and cart via which all the survivors are moved to the central barracks of the main Auschwitz complex (p.192). It is on this journey that Levi first grasps the sheer scale of the Germans’ vast slave industrial complex.
  • The nameless Frenchman whose skeletal body is contorted into a knot, like a root, who can’t speak, and who can’t be uncontorted, trapped in his physical psychosis (p.195).
  • Hurbinek, a three-year-old who didn’t speak, who couldn’t speak, who nobody had taught how to speak, whose eyes burned with anger at a world he couldn’t express, who died (p.198).
  • Henek, born in Transylvania, brought to Auschwitz when he was 14, with his whole family who were all gassed, survived in the children’s Kommando, and now, fit and alert, goes on scouting missions round the derelict camp, using Levi, still sick in bed, as guard of his slowly increasing ‘stash’ of goodies (p.200).
  • Peter Pavel, a beautiful blonde robust child who did everything carefully, punctiliously, as instructed and never looked or talked to anyone (p.200).
  • The two Polish girls, insolent ex-Kapo Hanka and little nymphomaniac Jadzia, who flirted with every available man.
  • Henek’s friend, Noah, ‘as strong as a horse, voracious and lecherous’, parading the derelict camp and making conquests in numerous female barracks (p.203).
  • Frau Vitta, a young widow from Trieste, survivor of Birkenau, compulsively cleaning and washing and looking after the sick and children, and then sitting by Levi’s bunk pouring out her story, trying to exorcise the images of dead bodies and body parts which fill her waking mind unless she is active (p.204).
  • André and Antoine, two French peasants from the Vosges, only been in the camp a month, lying in the infirmary with diphtheria. André died in mid-sentence from which point Antoine withdrew and went downhill. The doctor shook his head: ‘His companion is calling him.’ (p.205)
  • Olga, a Jewish Croat partisan who survived Birkenau and visits Levi to tell him the fate of the train load of Italians he arrived with, a long year previously. All dead, all gassed (p.206).
  • ‘There was a sort of human wreck, of indefinable age, who spoke ceaselessly to himself in Yiddish; one of the many whom the ferocious life of the camp had half destroyed, and then left to their fate, sealed up (and perhaps half protected) by a thick armour of insensitivity or open madness. (p.209)

Cracow

  • On the train journey to Cracow, Levi meets the master smuggler, merchant, dealer and fixer, Mordo Nahum, a ferociously competitive, mercantile Greek Jew from Salonika whose every waking hour was devoted to trading, dealing, scamming, estimating, (pp.209 ff.), ‘visibly an authority, a master, a super-Greek’ (p.217). With the appearance of Nahum, the tone begins to lighten and, astonishingly, you find yourself laughing out loud at their arguments and Nahum’s tricks. Many pages and months later, Levi bumps into Nahum at the Red Army barracks at Slutsk, where he has assumed responsibility for and re-organised a brothel of twenty or so strong Bessarabian women (p.296). A quintessential survivor.
  • The priest who Levi speaks to in Latin, who directs them towards the soup kitchen by the cathedral, who warns them not to speak in German (p.222).
  • The lawyer at the railway station of Trzebiania, who refuses to tell the crowd of Poles that gather round these strange shambling figures in their zebra pyjamas that they are Jews. Because the Poles might not sympathise so much. Because anti-Jewish feeling still exists. And also warns Levi not to speak German (p.227).
  • The Polish policeman in Szczakowa, who speaks awful Italian, learned while working as a miner in northern Italy, who kindly accommodates Levi and Nahum in the lovely warm cells of the town gaol, before they get the train on to Katowice (p.228)

Katowice

  • The huge 50-year-old Mongolian with massive hands, drooping Stalin moustache and fiery eyes who guards the entirely pointless entrance to Bogucice camp (p.230).
  • Captain Egorov, a little man ‘with a rustic and repulsive air’ (p.231).
  • Dr Danchenko, the doctor at Bogucice, almost permanently drunk and dedicated to seducing all available women, ‘with the mannerisms of an operetta grand duke’ (p.236).
  • Marya Fyodorovna Prima, who Levi befriends, a military nurse, about 40, who created the infirmary at Bogucice from scratch, fierce and silent like a large cat, she hails from the forests of Siberia (p.234).
  • Colonel Rovi, in fact an accountant of mediocre intellect possessed of an inexhaustible appetite for power who rises by sheer will power to command of the Italian continent at Bogucice (p.232).
  • Galina, the happy-go-lucky young girl who Levi finds himself having to dictate the days’ prescriptions to, once he has been given the job of assistant in the camp pharmacy. In fact the records they write up are no use to anyone, more interesting is Galina’s story of having been conscripted in the middle of nowhere and having accompanied the Kommandatur everywhere from the Crimea to Finland and now down to Katowice. One day the Kommandatur are ordered back to Russia and she disappears, not bothered in the slightest about having no pass or permit, ‘leaving behind her a sharp scent of earth, of youth and joy’ (p.239).
  • Ferrari, a failed thief who attended a school for thieves in Loreto but was arrested at his first attempt to razor open a woman’s pocket on a tram, sent to prison, caught up in some German roundup and ended up in  this godforsaken camp in Poland (p.240).
  • The NKVD inspector, thirty, a Jew, of an austere Don Quixote appearance, his inspection passes without comment but, when he discovers a motorbike in the camp, he commandeers it and ends up staying for months, eating heartily and spending the rest of  his time roaring round the surrounding countryside on his pride and joy (p.249). At a victory football match between Red Army soldiers and local Poles he is meant to be the referee but lets the game go on for over two hours while continually interrupting it by blowing his whistle at moments when a goal is looming, arbitrarily awarding fouls or free kicks to sides at random and sometimes running off with the ball to score a goal before doing a victory lap of honour with his hands clasped over his head. In scenes like this the book becomes entirely comic in tone (p.266).
  • Cesare, barely twenty, another seasoned merchant, fraudster, fiddler and fixer, ‘an untameable man’ (p.302) but – unlike Nahum – full of genuine human warmth. Levi strikes up a close friendship as they go on daily expeditions from the camp to the main centre of Katowice and its enormous market. Chapter 5 is devoted to Cesare, who can only speak Roman ghetto slang, ‘very ignorant, very innocent and very civilised’. Observing Cesare scamming and bartering ‘reconciled me to the world and once more lit in me that joy of living which Auschwitz had extinguished’ (p.252).
  • Soon Cesare has a fixed place in Katowice market and a regular clientele he has spirited into existence by giving them nicknames: the Bearded Lady, Skin and Bones, Booby, Three Buttocks, the Street Walker, Frankenstein, Old Bailey and many others (p.257). (Cesare’s last adventure is told in the later collection, Moments of Reprieve)
  • Dr Gottlieb, himself an inmate of the Lager has managed, in just a few months, to transform himself into the most esteemed doctor in Katowice and made himself very wealthy. ‘Intelligence and cunning radiated from him like energy from radium’ (p.269).
  • Dusk, stage name of Ambrogia Trovati, thirty, small muscular and nimble, who passed his adolescence between prison and the stage and has got them inextricably muddled up (p.272).
  • Craveor, a professional criminal, a thief and burglar and a ponce. A native of Turin, he sets off to make his own way there and promises to take a letter from Levi to his mother and sister which, amazingly, he does, but then goes on to try and extort 200,000 lira out of them which he promises he’ll take back to Levi in Katowice. Luckily mother and sister don’t believe him, so he goes downstairs, steals Levi’s sister’s bicycle, and disappears. ‘Two years later, at Christmas, he sent me an affectionate greetings card from prison in Turin’ (p.275).
  • Mr Unverdorben, ‘a mild and touchy little old man from Trieste’ who refuses to reply to anyone who doesn’t address him as Mr, who tried his hand as a composer of a lyric opera, but chucked that in to become a chef on transatlantic liners (p.275).
  • The old lady shopkeeper in Katowice who turns out to be a German exile, expelled from Berlin for writing a long letter ‘To Mr Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of the Reich, Berlin’ advising him not to wage a war because too many people would be killed and anyway Germany couldn’t win a war against the whole world. If only, she confides to Levi and Cesare as she sells them the ingredients for a big spaghetti al burro, the rulers of the world would listen to people like her! (p.280)

And so on, at this rate of one or so pen portraits per page, of characters grim or humorous, for another 100 pages, crowds of people bursting the pages.

Only when I began to note them, did I realise just how much of these two books is about other people, how they are crammed to overflowing with brief lives and encounters with other people, in all their puzzling vibrancy and otherness. How the two books, despite their often terrible subject matter, somehow ending up being hymns to human nature.

The Russians

These two books, If this Is A Man and The Truce, can be contrasted on all sorts of levels: Death versus Rebirth; the Drowned versus the Saved; Night versus Day; Imprisonment versus Freedom.

On another level they are books about Germans and about Russians, respectively. From a hundred war movies we are familiar with Nazis barking their orders with what Levi describes as a millennium of anger in their voices. The Truce is interesting, apart from anything else, for giving a travelogue description of ordinary life in Stalin’s Russia – in isolated villages, in railway sidings, in Red Army barracks. If there is one theme which prevails, if there is one thing which characterises the liberating Russians, it is warm, peasant, crude CHAOS. Everywhere he finds things being done in ‘the Russian manner – to human measure, extemporaneous and crude’ (p.194).

The Russian administration took no care at all of the camp, so that one wondered if it really existed; but it must have existed, since we ate every day. In other words, it was a good administration. (p.299)

For example, as the authorities organise the various trains Levi and his fellow Italians have to catch, he reflects that the Germans would have a precise departure time and stick up well-printed posters, in all relevant languages, giving precise details of departure time and what may or may not be carried. Late-comers will be shot. Whereas the Russians don’t distribute any printed matter, give no reliable times and let the thing more or less organise itself which, time after time, it does (p.300). Throughout the book, Levi admires the Russian authorities’ ‘habitual and benign negligence and botchery’ (p.248), ‘the age-old beneficent Russian insouciance, that Oblomovian negligence’ (p.346).

Or take the way the Russian dole out the same ration of tobacco to every person in Cracow regardless of age or sex – so that even babies received the ten ounce packet (p.220). Or the way the punishment cell at Starye Dorogi is only used once, when the authorities get cross at an illegal butcher slaughtering and selling Red Army horses. But, with characteristic nonchalance, the authorities send three rations to the cell regardless of how many people are in it, the butcher emerged from his ten days of ‘punishment’ as fat as a pig (p.327). Or the way the cooking at the vast camp at Slutsk is simply assigned to a different nationality each week, you’d have thought a recipe for chaos but which in fact encourages each group to outdo each other with portions and novelty (p.298).

Similarly, at the camp of Bogucice, a suburb of Katowice, the Russians set one guard with a sten gun, who sometimes makes a fuss about seeing your propusk or pass, if you go in our out the main gate past him. But from his vantage point he can see a big hole in the barbed wire fence and happily watches as all the inmates as want to pass in and out as they please. Russian laissez-faire (p.230).

Later, at the Krasny Dom or Red House, an enormous building near the village of Starye Doroge, the 1,400 Italian pilgrims spread out to fill all rooms of this bizarre rambling edifice, set up all kinds of scams, forage for food, discover two German women in a woodland hideaway who are working as prostitutes, start trading with the local peasants and selling on the inedible fish they’re getting as rations to the hordes of Red Army soldiers passing along the main road nearby, in haphazard and extreme disorder.

They stay at Krasny Dom for two months, from 25 July to 25 September.

At several points Levi’s relief at escaping the insane and murderous precision of the Germans overflows into virtual worship of the anarchic, rough and ready Russian soul.

And yet, under their slovenly and anarchical appearance, it was easy to see in them, in each of those rough and open faces, the good soldiers of the Red Army, the valiant men of the old and new Russia, gentle in peace and fierce in war, strong from an inner discipline born from concord, from reciprocal love and from love of their country; a stronger discipline, because it came from the spirit, than the mechanical and servile discipline of the Germans. It was easy to understand, living among them, why this former discipline, and not the latter, had finally triumphed. (p.232)

To life!

Even if it wasn’t following on from the death camp darkness of its predecessor, this would be a joyous book, but being set against the darkest hole in history gives it extra power and Life. Despite starting in mud and despair, it ends up being a hymn to life, to all human life, to all human beings, to the value and respect we owe each other.

To Life! L’chaim!

The truce

Except…

When the Italians are finally informed they will be returning home and embark on the epic, roundabout, painfully disorganised and achingly slow train journey back to Italy, as they cross the border and finally realise they are home, Levi’s heart is heavy. For now the real trial begins: the trial of resuming a place in the normal workaday world from which he was torn twenty months earlier, or meeting friends, family, workmates and… How to explain? What to say? Where to begin? – He realises the past few months in Russia have been a holiday, a ‘truce’, before he faces this next, arduous, second part of his life.

And there is another aspect to the title. At several moments, some of the many characters point out to a disheartened Levi that, despite appearances and official announcements, the war isn’t over. ‘There is always war,’ as Nahum says, memorably (p.224). And indeed, within weeks of the official end of the war on 8 May, the tone, the atmosphere in Russia changes. While at the stopover at Zhmerinka, Levi is alarmed to see a massive sign which had read ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ being whitewashed and repainted to read Vpered na Zapàd‘ – ‘On towards to the West’ (p.292). Enmity between Soviet Russia and the West began before the war even finished, and was to harden quickly.

This is the second, buried, meaning of the title, and why it isn’t titled ‘Freedom’ or ‘Liberation’. In Levi’s baleful view, the period of his personal liberation and the liberation of hundreds of thousands like him, occurred in a window, a moment outside conflict, a lacuna between the vicious six years of the world war and the start of the next massive conflict, the Cold War which, in the years when Levi wrote this sequel, almost broke into a war of total annihilation (the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962).

So it was a truce in every sense, personal, and political. And we readers are hugely lucky, for out of it comes this marvelous book, full of life and colour. To read it is to start in one of the darkest places of human history, mired in death and pointless cruelty – but then to be brought slowly up into light and air, and finally left marvelling at the strange, incongruous, vicious, endlessly adaptable and often hilarious creatures which we humans seem to be.


Credit

La tregua by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1963. The English translation by Stuart Woolf was published by Bodley Head in 1965. All references are to the 1987 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La treguaThe Truce (trans: 1965) The story of Levi’s eight-month-long trek back from Auschwitz to Turin, via an unexpected through Russia and Eastern Europe.
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988)
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

If This Is A Man by Primo Levi (1947)

They crowd my memory with their faceless presences, and if I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen. (p.96)

Levi spent a year in Auschwitz concentration camp – from February 1944 to the camp’s liberation by the advancing Russians in January 1945. He was one of the very few Jews to survive the experience and write about it. This is his account.

Lead-up

Having been born in Turin, Italy, in 1919, he came to adulthood and was pursuing studies to become an industrial chemist at just the time that Italy’s Fascist leader, Mussolini, allowed himself to be dragged into Hitler’s European war, and then came under growing pressure from the Nazis to enact German-style anti-Semitic legislation.

To escape the increasing anti-Jewish persecution, Levi took to the mountains outside Turin in late 1943, to form a ragtag group of ‘partisans’. They were captured on 13 December 1943 and interned in an Italian camp. Then, on 21 February 1944, came the order to load all the Jews in the camp onto trains – into the notorious cattle trucks, 650 people packed into 12 trucks, with no heating, seats or toilets. They began an agonisingly slow journey North and East – through Austria and Czechoslovakia, then across the border into southern Poland, arriving at the siding of the vast industrial-concentration camp complex at Auschwitz-Birkenau one dark night.

If This Is A Man is the relatively short (160 pages in the Abacus paperback) but devastating and upsetting account of his experiences there. In his introduction Levi explains that the 17 chapters were written in order of intensity of the memories, and only later re-arranged into a sort of chronological order. This explains what I think is the key feature of the book – it is not an account of what he saw there, it is a meditation on what it meant, on what he learned.

Thus there is detail about the first few hours – how almost all the women, children and elderly are taken off in one group at the siding, to be gassed and incinerated (though none of them realised it at the time); how the remaining 96 men were processed into the work camp of Monovitz-Buna, which involved standing around naked waiting to be deloused, being shaved, having a number tattooed on your wrist – Levi is number 174517.

My number is 174517; we have been baptised, we will carry the tattoo on our left arm until we die. (p.33)

But then it jumps quite quickly to a few months later, into the heart of the condition – when Levi has become a shambling slave like all the others, shattered by the starvation rations, by the long hours of gruelling physical labour, by lack of sleep, by permanent illness, dysentery, running sores, by the freezing grip of the never-ending Polish winter.

Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this. (p.32)

And it’s not just the physical privations: it’s the psychological destruction wrought by the camp. Using the Teutonic efficiency which he ironically refers to throughout (for every person missing the roll-call, ten would be shot), the Germans systematically destroy each inmates’ self-respect and then their bare humanity: shaving the head and tattooing a number is just the start of a process which continues with the constant beatings and kickings by the ‘Kapos’ (Jews appointed as work overseers), the implementation of a host of petty regulations (‘the rites to be carried out were infinite and senseless’, p.40), the way all authority sees through them, ignores them, makes it clear in a host of ways that they are non-people, non-humans, dead men walking.

For beneath all the daily humiliation and struggle to survive, is fear of the ‘selections’ when the inmates are given a card with a number and go naked from one dormitory to another, handing the card to a bored SS man holding a clip file. In those two or three seconds he makes snap decisions about who looks well enough to carry on working, and who is obviously kaput and will be sent, the next day, to the gas chamber. Later, those who know they will die distribute their meagre possessions (a spoon, a bowl) and lie on their bunks staring glassy eyed into nothingness.

We prisoners

Because he is concerned to plunge the reader into the heart of the experience, Levi routinely uses the second person plural, ‘we this’, ‘we that’, to convey the sense of the communal experience, to make himself a representative figure, an everyman or more accurately, everyslave figure – embodying in the degradation and immiseration of his person the suffering of millions and millions of his fellow Jews as well as the hundreds of thousands of other non-Jewish victims of the camps.

We have learnt.. to reply ‘Jawohl‘, never to ask questions, always pretend to understand. We have learnt the value of food; now we also diligently scrape the bottom of the bowl after the ration and we hold it under our chins when we eat bread so as not to lose crumbs… We have learnt that everything is useful: the wire to tie up our shoes, the rags to wrap round our feet, waste paper to (illegally) pad out our jacket against the cold… (p.39)

So it isn’t a straightforward factual account. It is an existential account. Levi returns again and again to the experience, the feeling of being reduced to a number, a shambling skeleton, a wreck of a human being.

A fortnight after my arrival I already had the prescribed hunger, that chronic hunger unknown to free men, which makes one dream at night, and settles in all the limbs of one’s body… On the back of my feet I already have those numb sores that will not heal. I push wagons, I work with a shovel, I turn rotten in the rain, I shiver in the wind; already my emaciated body is no longer mine: my belly is swollen, my limbs emaciated, my face is thick in the morning, hollow in the evening. (p.43)

He drums into us the monotonous rhythm of camp life, waking before dawn on freezing mornings, roused and dressed and checked and then marched off to work, work, work when they could barely stand.

Teachings

Levi always refers to the camp as the ‘Lager’, the German word. Here everyone is set against everyone else. People are reduced to animals who will squabble and fight about crumbs of food. On the other hand, down here at the bottom, you learn the basic rules of humanity and of survival. Everything can be stolen. Even when washing in the fetid unclean water, never let go of your shirt or jacket or beret, which you must clutch between your knees. Never put down any of your belongings, they will be stolen. Take advantage of any opening, any offer of extra food, a day without work, every five minutes not spent slaving is a window, an opportunity to recover energy.

Chapter 9 is titled ‘The Drowned and The Saved’ and this is a central division, a profound division among the inmates, which Levi observed, so important that he gave the name to a collection of essays he published 40 years later. Some people are survivors: they strive for a ‘place’, position, any kind of small privilege, often acting the part and in the end being appointed overseer of this bit of work, or elder in a dormitory or even Kapo – all with the promise of more food and less work. Others – the drowned – from the start give in, collapse, fold up on themselves, lacking the inner resources, the steel, the determination to survive and prove the Germans wrong.

  • the privileged will always abuse the unprivileged: it is how they demonstrate to themselves that they are privileged
  • to those that have will be given more; to those that have nothing, everything will be taken away (p.94)
  • ‘One of the most important things I had learned at Auschwitz was that one must always avoid being a nobody. All roads are closed to a person who appears useless, all are open to a person who has a function, even the most fatuous.’ (p.235)

In his repeated technique of drawing general observations about human nature from various aspects of the camp, we see Levi the scientist, the PhD chemistry student, weighing and analysing, regarding the Lager as ‘a gigantic biological and social experiment’ (p.93) – justifying his claim in the Preface, that the book wasn’t written to add to the accusations against the Germans (many of whom were still being tried at the Nurenberg Trials when he wrote it), but ‘to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind’ (p.15).

Other people

In this condition of subjugation and deliberate dehumanisation, Levi marvels at the people around him. In what will become his trademark approach, Levi gives cameos of people he sees with a kind of wondering alienation. He wonders how so-and-so survives despite being so sickly, he admires the strong who have shouldered their way into enjoying some petty privilege, he is full of contempt for those who could help their fellows but don’t.

In this grim landscape there is rarely the opportunity for friendships or relationships. Instead he gives us moments of interaction between inmates which he turns into moralised vignettes, gestures which point towards larger human truths. The many individuals he names or describes are individuals but at the same time somehow, types, essences, possible variations of the human creature.

Many were the ways devised and put into effect by us in order not to die: as many as there are different human characters. (p.98)

Levi devotes chapter 11 to the Ulysses canto from Dante’s Divine Comedy (and his attempt to remember it properly and explain it to a fellow inmate, Jean, ‘the ‘Pikolo of our Kommando’, as a kind of test that he is still a civilised man). You can make an obvious comparison: Dante used figures from his own day, including many of his own friends and acquaintances, to point larger morals about sin and redemption; ditto Levi in the camp.

  • Steinlauf, ex-Austrian army, fought in the Great War, teaches Levi that you must go through the rituals – washing in fetid water, ‘cleaning’ the greasy muddy shoes – in order to maintain your ‘dignity and propriety’, so you don’t descend into slovenly brutes (p.47).
  • Null Achtzehn, a man reduced to the last three digits of his camp number (018), shambling wreck, an emptiness, stands tottering with no impetus of his own: he will go to the gas chamber with the same lack of interest.
  • Chajim, a Polish watchmaker who retains dignity by adapting his skills to the new situation (p.53).
  • Schmulek, a Polish Jewish albino, selected for death, he quietly gives Levi his spoon and knife (p.59).
  • Alberto, an optimistic 22-year-old Italian Jew who manages to befriend everyone, wangle favours from everyone, without actively hurting others, a ‘rare figure of the strong yet peace-loving man against whom the weapons of night are blunted’ (p.63).
  • Engineer Kardos has developed a speciality in tending the inmates’ feet, lancing boils, cleaning wounds, tending corns, getting paid in fragments of bread (p.64).
  • Resnyk, a tall courteous Italian, with whom Levi must share his narrow bunk (p.71).
  • Schepschel, survivor of four years in the camp, doesn’t hesitate to betray his partner in a theft from the kitchen, Moischl, to a flogging, in the mistaken belief it will gain him credit in the eyes of the block supervisor (p.99).
  • Alfred L., director of a chemical factory who grasped from the start that you must act like one of the saved, dress and hold yourself and talk like a ‘prominent’ and whose long term plan paid off when he was appointed head of the Chemical Commando, a position of privilege he defended with complete ruthlessness.
  • Elias Lindzen, an immensely tough muscular dwarf, a ball of muscle, impossible to understand his deformed Yiddish, a phenomenal worker who gains a position of respite, and devotes himself to full time theft and survival. A monster. A ‘para-human’. Perfectly suited to life in the camp (p.103).
  • Henri, a civilised 22-year-old Frenchman, whose brother died in Buna camp and who has perfected a seductive manner with which he charms all sorts of favours out of all sorts of inmates and supervisors, all the time covering his soul in an impenetrable carapace. Charming and utterly cold (p.106).

There are quite a few more pen portraits, in the remaining 70 pages, which I won’t list here. But this list shows several things:

  1. Levi succeeds in his attempt to record all the people he can – as witnesses, as testimony, as a simple record of the lives of victims otherwise reduced to a nullity and then exterminated
  2. Levi’s ability, as a writer, a chronicler, to create such vivid pen portraits, to produce very powerful short cameos of those around him
  3. Levi’s ability to see beneath the individual to the general ‘laws’ of human nature, which fascinate Levi the scientist

An ending

To his amazement Levi is called to an interview to work in an actual chemistry laboratory. He will never forget the way the blonde Aryan chemist interviewing him, regards him. He gets the job and does his best to clean himself before coming to the lab each day, but can’t ignore the looks of repulsion on the faces of the pretty German secretaries.

But it isn’t the lab job which saves him; it’s getting ill. Throughout the autumn of 1944 rumours had spread that the Allies have landed, somewhere far away in France, and that the Russians are throwing the Germans back. By Christmas they can hear the low rumble of the guns at the front, off to the East. And it’s at this crucial point that Levi contracts scarlet fever, and is in the Ka-Be, the Krankenbau, the infirmary full of the sick and dying, when the Germans make the momentous decision to evacuate Auschwitz. Some 20,000 surviving inmates were lined up and marched off west. As history records, almost none of them survived the long, pointless march through the Polish snow and ice.

One morning the infirmary inhabitants wake up and all the Germans have gone. The last chapter returns us to time, to human time. It is in diary form, recording in detail the events of the ten days between the Germans’ departure and the arrival of the Russians – January 18 to 27 – because now days are no longer an indefinite repetition of grey monotonous slavery: they come alive with individual features; they progress; things change.

So in the last few pages the still sickly Levi forms an alliance with two Frenchmen, new to the camp and so still with residual energy, Charles and Arthur, and set about scavenging the camp for food and treasure. They find a stove, break up firewood, discover a huge store of frozen potatoes and turnips. They collaborate. They use initiative and imagination. They become human again, rising up from their slave nullity, and this – as well as the sense of the approaching Russian liberators – gives the final pages an extraordinary force and energy and excitement, which lifts the reader out of the despairing pit of the central core of the book.

But leaves you, nonetheless, with pitiful haunting memories.

He told me his story, and today I have forgotten it, but it was certainly a sorrowful, cruel and moving story; because so are all our stories, hundreds of thousands of stories, all different and all full of a tragic, disturbing necessity. We tell them to each other in the evening, and they take place in Norway, Italy, Algeria, the Ukraine, and are simple and incomprehensible like the stories in the Bible. But are they not themselves stories of a new Bible? (p.72)

The warning from the camp

There is no one place you can point to and say this is Levi’s Great Message; instead there are lots of scattered insights and warnings. In the Preface he comes nearest to a general conclusion:

Many people – many nations – can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy’. For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager. (p.15)

I take this to mean that the temptation to define one or some groups as ‘the other’, the ‘strangers’, is a part of all human nature. To insult or abuse or threaten the other, the stranger, minorities or outsiders, is always tempting and, on a psychological level, often pleasurable because it fulfils some basic human need. ‘Disconnected’ acts of abuse or threat are part of the rough and tumble of everyday life, no matter how much we disapprove.

The watershed, the crux, the line in the sand – is when threats and abuse become part of a ‘system’, and are officially sanctioned. Either by a powerful group, by a political party or – God forbid – by a government. At that point, the doorway to the Lager is opened.

Here is the product of a conception of the world carried rigorously to its logical conclusion; so long as the conception subsists, the conclusion remains to threaten us. The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal. (p.15)

It is this demonising of any social group, or gender, or religion, or minority, which invokes the shadow of the death camps, and which it’s in all our interests to avoid and prevent.


Credit

Se questo è un uomo by Primo Levi was published by the small publisher, De Silva in 1947. In 1958 it was republished by the bigger publisher, Einaudi and became better known. The English translation by Stuart Woolf was published by the Orion Press in 1959. All references are to the 1987 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is on his Wikipedia article.

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomo – If This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La tregua – The Truce (trans: 1965)
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988)
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe

At Powayen near Königsberg, for example, the bodies of dead women were strewn everywhere: they had been raped and then brutally killed with bayonets or rifle butt blows to the head. Four women here had been stripped naked, tied to the back of a Soviet tank and dragged to their deaths. In Gross Heydekrug a woman was crucified on the altar cross of the local church, with two German soldiers similarly strung up on either side. More crucifixions occurred in other villages, where women were raped and then nailed to barn doors. At Metgethen it was not only women but children who were killed and mutilated: according to the German captain who examined their corpses, ‘Most of the children had been killed by a blow to the head with a blunt instrument,’, but ‘some had numerous bayonet wounds to their tiny bodies.’ (p.75)

No summary can really do justice to the cumulatively devastating effect of reading the hundreds and hundreds of vignettes like this which Keith Lowe has assembled in his excoriating book about the moral, economic social and psychological collapse of an entire continent into bottomless savagery and barbarism.

Savage continent

There are countless books about the origins of the Second World War – histories of the alliances and invasions, biographies of Hitler and Mussolini, cultural studies of the 1930s – but comparatively few about how the war ended or its long-drawn-out aftermath. This book sets out to fill that gap and is a fascinating, well written and traumatising account which aims to cover every element of the catastrophe.

And it really was a catastrophe beyond comprehension. The book starts with hard-to-grasp facts about the numbers of people killed, soldiers and civilians, before going on to describe the physical destruction which touched every corner of the continent.

Death

Up to 40 million people died in the Second World War, an estimated 27 million of them Russians. About a third of all women born in the 1930s never married because there were no men – just a huge gap where all those dead men should have been.

Every schoolchild is taught that around 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust, but the scale of other losses were comparable: Germany lost an estimated 4.5 million soldiers and 1.5 million civilians, roughly the same number. Poland also lost about 6 million dead; Ukraine between 7 and 8 million killed, a fifth of the country’s population. A quarter of Belarusians died. By 1945 huge areas of the East were nothing but smoking rubble and ruined fields and landscapes emptied of human beings.

Destruction

Hitler lost patience with the Poles after the Warsaw Rising and ordered the city to be razed to the ground. In the event some 93% of buildings were destroyed, along with the National Archive, Financial Archive the Municipal Archive, all libraries, art galleries and museums. Factor in Hitler and Stalin’s joint efforts to wipe out the entire professional class of Poland and the mass murder of all its army officers at Katyn, and it’s a surprise Poland still exists. Coventry was devastated as were London, and most German cities were destroyed though few as thoroughly as Dresden or Hamburg, where the notorious fire storm bombing killed some 40,000 in one night. About a fifth of all German living space was destroyed. Some 20 million Germans were rendered homeless. Maybe 70,000 villages across Russia were destroyed along with their entire rural infrastructure. Some 32,000 Russian factories were destroyed. In Hungary, the Germans flooded or destroyed every single mine. In Holland, the Germans deliberately opened the dykes that kept out the sea and flooded half a million acres of land. From one end of the continent to the other, the scale of the conscious and deliberate destruction of all signs of civilisation is breath-taking.

The more you read of villages, towns and landscapes obliterated, and historic towns razed to the ground, the more you realise that we latecomers live amidst the ruins of a once great civilisation. How did we ever survive?

Four parts

The book is divided into four big parts, each of which contains 6 or 7 sections. The quickest way to convey the breadth of subject matter is simply to list them.

  1. The Legacy of War – Physical destruction. Absence. Displacement. Famine. Moral destruction. Hope. Landscape of Chaos.
  2. Vengeance – The thirst for blood. The camps liberated. Vengeance restrained: slave labourers. German prisoners of war. Vengeance unrestrained: Eastern Europe. The enemy within. Revenge on women and children. The purpose of vengeance.
  3. Ethnic cleansing – Wartime choices. The Jewish flight. The ethnic cleansing of Ukraine and Poland. The expulsion of the Germans. Europe in microcosm: Yugoslavia. Western tolerance, Eastern intolerance.
  4. Civil war – Wars within wars. Political violence in France and Italy. The Greek civil war. Cuckoo in the nest: communism in Romania. The subjugation of Eastern Europe. The resistance of the ‘forest brothers’. The Cold War mirror.

Some themes

The subject matter, the scale of the disaster, is too big to grapple with or try to summarise. Lowe’s book itself is only a summary, a flying overview of a vast and terrifying continent of savagery, peppered with just a tiny sample of the endless torture, rape, ethnic cleansing, anti-Semitism, persecution, murder and violence which was unleashed across Europe. Some of the thoughts or ideas which stuck out more than most:

The myth of national unity After the war every country wanted to think well of itself. France is the most glaring example. In all his broadcasts General de Gaulle emphasised that La France was united in its fight against Fascism, the spirit of gloire and liberté etc etc was shared by all good Frenchmen. This ignored the fact that France, of course, enjoyed a right-wing government which enthusiastically co-operated with the Nazis from 1940 onwards, dutifully rounded up French Jews and shipped them off to death camps, helped by collaborators at every level of French society.

De Gaulle’s success was that during the war and, especially, after the Liberation, he helped the French gloss over this shameful fact, and to promote the myth of the heroic Resistance. There were a lot of French resistance fighters (around 100,000), but the figure went up fourfold once the Allies landed and victory became certain (p.168). In later years almost every Frenchman turned out to have helped the Resistance in one way or another. In Yugoslavia Marshal Tito appealed to the spirit of unity and brotherhood in an attempt to unite the fractious factions of his made-up country. Stalin’s speeches invoked a united Russian people, and so on.

Reading about the foreign comparisons shed light on the strongly patriotic writings and especially movies of my own country, England, during and after the war, and made me realise that the national pride evinced in all those classic war movies was just the local expression of a feeling which nations all across Europe wanted to feel, and allowed themselves to feel, with a greater or lesser distorting of the truth.

Victimhood As a reader of the Guardian newspaper it’s often easy to think that modern society is made up entirely of victims – black victims of racism, Muslim victims of Islamophobia, women victims of sexism, LBGT victims of prejudice and so on and so on. Even bankers felt persecuted after the 2008 crash. Everyone in the modern world seems quick to have a grievance, a permanent readiness to feel hard-done-by or treated unfairly.

It is very interesting to discover that this is not a new phenomenon – to read Lowe’s examples of the way entire countries, and groups within countries, competed in the aftermath of the war to appear the bigger victims.

It is an eye-opener to learn that – after the hammering their cities took from Allied bombers, and then especially after the forced relocation of millions of ethnic Germans from the surrounding countries into the borders of a reduced Germany, combined with the industrial raping of German women by the invading Red Army – that a lot of Germans managed to present themselves as the victims of the Second World War. ‘They were only civilians. They never shot anyone etc. They never really supported that crazy Hitler and his stupid Nazi party.’

Similarly, many of the collaborators, the police and militias who co-operated with the occupying Germans in countries all across Europe, later, after the Liberation, were themselves subject to attacks or arrest and trial. This led many to work up a sense of grievance that they were the ones who were the true victims. They had only been obeying orders. If they hadn’t done it someone else would. They managed to restrain the wilder savagery of the Nazis. And so on and so on. It wasn’t us, really, why is everyone being so nasty?

Thus right-wing French historians and politicians have exaggerated the massacres carried out by the Resistance immediately following the Liberation, claiming they indiscriminately murdered 100,000 loyal, noble, patriotic French men and women. Similarly, modern right wing forces in Italy where partisans and collaborators openly fought after the Liberation, claim that the (generally communist) partisans killed up to 300,000. In both cases history is twisted to exonerate those who collaborated with the Germans, and to create a permanent sense of grievance which right-wing politicians can still appeal to, in our time.

Rape on a mass, on an industrial, scale. All sides committed rape but it was the Russian army, invading west into Germany, which wins first prize. As many as two million German women were raped by Red Army soldiers, but it’s the number of times they were violated which is really sickening, with some women being raped 60 or 70 times, sometimes scores of times on the same day, during the same horrific night. Every female from eight to 80 was at risk. As many as 100,000 women were raped and raped again in Berlin alone.

We can take it as read that rape is an instrument of war and/or terror, and occurs in almost all war zones. Soldiers can justify it because a) they despise the enemy and their women b) they may die at any moment and regard sex as their due c) it is a form of psychological warfare, humiliating a nation’s menfolk for being unable to defend their women.

Lowe points out that rape seems to occur where there is a significant ethnic difference between groups – thus the Russian forces which fought across Bulgaria committed relatively few rapes because of the close cultural similarities between the countries. Whereas, in the West, several Arab battalions became well known as mass rapists, for example the Moroccan Goumier battalions. At least part of the atrocity, Lowe claims, due to cultural difference.

Shearing women collaborators A surprising number of women in occupied countries fell in love with the German invaders. Lowe shocks me a little by claiming that various surveys at the time and later revealed this was because they found the Germans more ‘manly’ than their own, defeated and humiliated, menfolk (p.166).

One of the features of the Liberation from German rule everywhere was the punishment not only of collaborator administrators and police, but of the women who had slept with the enemy. Lowe describes in grisly detail, and includes photos, of the tens of thousands of women who found themselves attacked by lynch mobs who often stripped them naked and often shaved all the hair off their head as a mark of ‘shame’.

Where he adds an insight which is typical of the book, typical of its way of shedding new light in a sober, empirical way, is when he points out the psychological role these humiliations took. Many bystanders, including horrified British officers, realised that there was something medieval or even pagan about the ceremonies. The women were shaved with mock ceremony by the community barber, sometimes daubed with swastikas etc, but rarely really hurt, never beaten or killed.

And this is because, witnesses report, the shavings had something of a festival spirit, often accompanied by heavy drinking and folk or patriotic songs. By nominating one scapegoat to bear all the sins of the community, the taunting crowds could forget their differences, bury the hatchet, and renew themselves. Witnesses report a marked reduction in tension in places where the ceremony had taken place, and where shaved women could be seen in the streets. The angry, the potentially violent, could see that at least some justice had been done, goes the argument – and so more overt violence was avoided.

Weird, persecutory, grotesquely unfair? Yes – but that’s human nature. This book shows you who we are, the fierce, frightened animals which lie just beneath the thin veneer of ‘civilisation’.

Jewish restraint No need to reprise the horrors of the Holocaust here. Dealing with the aftermath, Lowe devotes some pages to the revenge taken by camp inmates on their guards and tormentors. Generally the Allies, taken by surprise by the scale and atrocity of the camps, allowed the inmates – or the few who were well and healthy enough to do it – to take what revenge they wanted. This happened in numerous places, and there’s a fascinating page about Abba Kovner’s ‘Avengers’, an organisation of Jews which explicitly set out to murder one German for every Jew. They massacred garrisons of German soldiers where they could and were only just foiled in a grand plan to put poison into the drinking water of five German cities.

But by and large Lowe emphasises the restraint which Jews exercised. There’s a telling quote from the US General Lucius Clay, that the restraint of the liberated Jews and their respect for law and order were one of the most remarkable things he saw in his two years in Europe (p.89). All the more striking, given that virtually every other social group seems to have been hell-bent on some kind of revenge, revenge against collaborators which sometimes escalated into overt civil war, as in Greece (1946 to 1949), or was only just contained, either by Allied forces (as in Italy) or by the brutal crackdown of communist authorities (as in Tito’s Yugoslavia).

All the more striking given Lowe’s pages devoted to highlighting the way vicious anti-Semitism continued and even increased after the war in various countries, where civilians were by and large indifferent to the sufferings of the Jews, told them to their face it was their own fault, or explicitly blamed them for the start of the whole war (p.191).

Ethnic cleansing Part three is devoted to this subject in all its disgusting variations. 11 million Germans were forced to move, kicked out of western Poland and northern Czechoslovakia, often at short notice, often forced to march carrying all their possessions. Lowe gives harrowing details of the old and sick dying early on, then Polish or Soviet soldiers picking off the walkers, sometimes just for kicks, firing at random at anyone who was too tall or too slow, or just firing into the columns of shuffling refugees and, of course, routinely pulling any pretty woman out of the crowd and raping her, often in sight of everyone, and shooting anyone who tried to interfere. In Europe as a whole an estimated 40 million people were displaced – on the roads – at one point or another.

Many people were surprised by the ferocity of the small wars which broke out in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but this book makes clear that they were just the continuation of feuds and enmities stretching way back into the 1930s, and which flared up with particular horror all through the war and well into the post-war period.

Even worse was the mass expulsion of Poles from Ukraine and Ukrainians from Poland, as Stalin and the Polish leaders each sought to ‘purify’ their lands. Defence organisations, bandits and partisans sprang up, one atrocity sparked reprisals and all sides adopted a general policy of terror ie not just the killing but the torture, rape, looting and destruction of completely ‘innocent’ communities. Again and again, all across the continent, as soon as you had successfully ‘dehumanised’ your opponents, you could do what you liked with them.

In Croatia the Ustashe not only killed Serbs but also took the time to hack off the breasts of women and castrate the men. In Drama, in north-eastern Greece, Bulgarian soldiers played football with the heads of their Greek victims. In Chelmon concentration camp German guards would kill babies who survived the gas vans by splitting their heads against trees. In Königsberg Soviet soldiers tied the legs of German women to two different cars and then drove off in opposite directions, literally tearing the women in half. (p.50)

The book pullulates with examples of the most grotesque atrocities. No sadistic cruelty the human mind could devise went unexampled, uncarried-out, in this grotesque era.

Western civilisation and Eastern barbarism One theme Lowe repeats again and again is that whatever barbarity you can think of, it was ten times, or a hundred times, worse in the East. Everything here reinforces the horror depicted in Tim Snyder’s terrifying book, Bloodlands, which gives figures for the mind-boggling scale of murders, executions, holocausts, pogroms, persecutions, and deliberate starvation which devastated the region from the Baltic states down through Poland and the Ukraine from the later 1920s until well after the war.

It is fashionable to ridicule the kind of old-fashioned English patriotism exemplified in Cecil Rhodes’ quote: ‘Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.’ That’s certainly silly if it’s interpreted to mean an Englishman has some innate superiority over other races. But in a context like this, bombarded with details of the atrocities almost every group on the continent carried out against everyone within reach, you realise it’s a simple statement of fact.

Britain was the only region not occupied by the Nazis or the Soviets, the only area which didn’t experience systematic terror, the creation of bandit and partisan groups outside the law, which didn’t suffer from collaborators and then experience the breakdown of civil society which led to civil war and mass atrocities.

To be born an Englishman in the first half of the 20th century really was a lucky fate compared to being born Polish, Ukrainian, Greek, Russian, German or Jewish.

The Iron Curtain Partly this is because the East was closer to the monstrous Russian bear, in its even-more-brutal-than-usual Soviet incarnation. Lowe’s book gives heart-breaking accounts of how communist parties in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia conspired to intimidate or murder opponents, make false promises to peasants and workers, fake election results, bribe and threaten their way to key ministries and then engineer communist takeovers of power which led in a few short years to the attainment of a completely communist Eastern Europe under Stalin’s iron control.

What I didn’t know was that partisans who had learned their trade resisting Germans during the war, continued in some of these countries a heroic anti-communist resistance, pathetically hoping for intervention and liberation from the West, well past the end of the war, sometimes into the 1950s. Apparently, the last anti-communist partisans in Lithuania weren’t completely stamped out (ie killed) until 1956 (p.356). Lowe describes how the memory of their stand against communism, led them to become folk heroes, subjects of songs and poems and books, and then, when the Baltic states gained independence in the 1990s, heroes of the new nations.

Nationalism Lowe doesn’t draw out this point, but I would: Nationalism is probably the most vicious belief ever to grip the human mind. It emerged from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars and spawned a century in which ‘nations’ across Europe decided they needed to be ‘free’. It was Serbian ‘nationalists’ who kicked off the Great War which led to the final collapse of Europe’s multicultural empires, and the world we find ourselves in today is still dictated by the fragmentation of these empires into so-called ‘nations’, each one of which wants to represent one ‘national’ spirit, one language, one religion, one army, strong and proud etc etc.

The murdering, raping, torturing, crucifying, throwing from buildings and beheadings which we see in Iraq and Syria are the long-term consequence of the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the failure of the Allied attempts to draw lines and define new ‘nations’ in a world plagued by ‘nationalism’. The French and British imperial authorities are routinely ridiculed for drawing neat lines on the map of the Middle East during the Great War, creating ‘nations’ which arbitrarily separated some ethnic or religious groups and just as arbitrarily pushed others together, storing up ‘trouble’ for the future.

But what lines would be better? What lines would prevent Sunni and Shia, Alawite and Sufi, Druze and Maronite, Jew and Arab, spending so much time and effort trying to murder each other in order to ‘purify’ their territory, once the poison of nationalism took hold – once the delusion that you should live in ‘nations’ made up of ‘your own’ people takes hold among political leaders?

Closer to the terrain described in Lowe’s book, we celebrated when the East European countries threw off the shackles of communism 25 years ago. But they have experienced a steady drift to the right over the past decade, under governments which have responded to economic difficulties and geopolitical uncertainty (Islamic terrorism, the refugee crisis) with stock appeals to national unity and pride etc, swiftly followed by its ever-present zombie twin – threats against ‘the enemy within’, against ‘subversives’, against anyone who undermines the ‘glorious values of the heroic fatherland’ etc etc, gypsies, Jews, gays, religious and ethnic minorities of any description, anyone who can be safely bullied and persecuted.

Conclusion

The rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany is such a well-worn story – both my children had to study it at school and could recite it like a fairy tale, ‘the Reichstag fire, blah blah blah’ – that it seems to me to have been almost emptied of content and relevance. All those textbooks and documentaries didn’t stop the Bosnian Serb Army from rounding up and exterminating more than 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica or bombarding Sarajevo.

By contrast, Lowe’s careful, scrupulous and judicious overview of the chaotic forces unleashed by the Second World War, and which lingered on in violence, hatred, blame and revenge for years afterwards, has much more to teach us about contemporary Europe and the worrying threats it still faces today.

This is a really important book which deserves to be widely read.


Credit

Savage Continent by Keith Lowe was published by Viking in 2012. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi (1982)

The Lord our God, the King of the World, had divided the waters of the Red Sea, and the chariots had been engulfed. Who would divide the waters before the Jews of Novoselki? Who would feed them on quails and manna? No manna descended from the black sky, but only pitiless snow. (p.65)

Primo Levi

Primo Levi was an Italian Jew, born in Turin in 1919. He was taking his final exams in chemistry as Italy joined Hitler’s war (June 1940), and then pursued a number of job options designed to conceal his Jewish identity. In 1943, when the situation in the civilian world became impossible for Jews, he joined a partisan group in the mountains outside Turin, but was quickly captured by Fascist forces. He was held in an Italian internment camp before being shipped to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. Here his chemistry expertise secured him a ‘good’ job and helped him survive a grim and horrifying year, before the camp was liberated in 1945 and he made his way, via a long detour into Russia, back across a ruined Europe and home to Turin.

Levi took up various jobs in post-war Italy while writing short stories and an account of his year in Auschwitz, Se questo è un uomo. This wasn’t much noticed when first published in 1947, in a country still prostrate with poverty and wanting to forget the war – but had more impact when republished in 1958. It was translated into English as If This Is a Man in 1959. It was followed by a sequel, The Truce (1963/65) describing his long odyssey home after release from Auschwitz, and then by a trickle of short stories, further memoirs, poems and novels. All depict with unsparing accuracy the horrors which he and tens of millions of others, Jewish and Gentile, had to endure as Europe descended into barbarism and anarchy.

The combination of unflinching truthfulness about the horrors he’d witnesses, and the quiet dignity of his civilised worldview and restrained style, led Levi, by the 1980s, to be considered one of Italy’s leading writers and, in some quarters, as a secular saint.

Narrative levels

The novel operates on least three narrative levels:

  1. The present The ‘present’ of the main narrative which moves forward in simple chronological order, the events of one day or night following the others consecutively. The chapters are long and broken up into shorter sub-sections, a flexible technique which allows some scenes to be described in detail while others move swiftly over months of relative inaction.
  2. The remembered past Most of the many characters in the novel has a back story which we learn about at some point or other. In addition, many of them tell anecdotes about the adventures and travels which brought them to join the partisans. Thus, from the level of the Continual Present, the text repeatedly opens doors into events from the past, recalled around a campfire, over a drink, in the safety of the forest or a ruined building – memories which slowly form a mosaic, the remembered fragments of a lost, an exterminated, civilisation.
  3. History The text is divided into 12 chapters and each of them has a formal date stamp, as the present narrative moves slowly from ‘July 1943’ to ‘July-August 1945’. In the early chapters the events seem to take place in a nameless wilderness and the characters have the archetypal power of types – the silent one, the strong one, the lost one, the angry one – like modern equivalents of The Pilgrim’s Progress or extras from Waiting For Godot. But as the novel progresses, the context of the wider world impinges more and more – especially after the partisans hear over a crackly radio that Mussolini’s government has fallen and the Allies have invaded Italy (September 1943) – and the story is pulled out of its timeless allegory and into the orbit of actual history, becoming less mythical, less archetypal, more the story of individuals in recognisable times and places.

If not now, when?

Levi published If Not Now, When? in 1982 under the Italian title Se non ora, quando? It was translated by William Weaver and published in the US in 1985. Some 40 years after the events it purports to describe.

I was expecting it to be about his time in the mountains outside Turin with the Italian partisans, but it isn’t at all. It is set a thousand kilometres away, in the vast empty spaces of south-west Russia and describes the adventures – or bare survival – of several groups of ‘partisans’ – in fact little more than ragtag groups of men, women and children – who’ve somehow escaped the Germans as they swept into Russia in 1942, and have survived to endure an incredibly harsh hand-to-mouth existence in the wild.

The narrative describes their extended trek across the marshland, forests and fields of Russia and Belarus, across the border into Poland, and then on to Germany. It features a host of harrowing and upsetting incidents along the way, as the group joins and splits from other partisan groups, Jewish and Gentile, and struggles to survive, to kill or sabotage German forces where they can, sustained by hatred, revenge, fear, and the dream of one day journeying to Palestine to start a new life.


Plot summary

Mendel and Leonid

The novel opens with two Jewish men meeting in the woods. Mendel ben Nachman, a watchmaker, is 28. He saw the Jews of his village, Strelka, rounded up by the SS, forced to dig a pit, then shot and buried in it, including his wife, Rivke, his ballebusteh, the queen of his house. Throughout the novel her death and his visions of her body, lying cold and lifeless in a pit of lime and mud, haunt his days and especially his nights. Mendel was dragooned into the Red Army artillery and fought numerous battles before being defeated by the Germans and escaping into the forest.

Mendel is talking to Leonid, trained in paratroop school, caught and imprisoned in a concentration camp or Lager (as Levi always calls them) near Smolensk, who has escaped and lived wild. Mendel has made a base of sorts in the forest, near Valuets, a village near Bryansk, and Leonid has just stumbled across it as the novel opens. They eat, smoke, chat. Two Jews with terrible stories to share and a minimal approach to bare survival in the wild. After a few days a little girl, all unwary, stumbles across the base. She’ll tell the local peasants. They must move on. And so begins their epic trek.

The Uzbek and the Heinkel

Mendel and Leonid meet Peiami Nazenovich (p.14), who’s made a base in a crashed German plane, a Heinkel. They warily chat, then they barter salt for some mouthfuls of a rabbit he’s caught and cooking. Food. Hunger. Barter.

They move on, towards Nivnoye marshes, and come across a larger camp with some scores of ‘partisans’ ie men and women who are surviving in the woods, led by Venjamin Ivanovich (p.33) As they approach the camp, the band are celebrating the end of the war, a bit prematurely since in fact it’s only the overthrow of Mussolini (July 1943). Surely the war can’t last much longer, they sing happily. Little do they know. Venjamin is suspicious of them because they are Jews and, after they’ve been with them a few days, advises them to leave, to press on West towards Novoselki, in the midst of the Polessia marshes, where rumour has it there’s an entire village of hiding Jews, the so-called ‘republic of the marshes’.

The republic of the marshes

The first hundred pages or more of the novel refer to place names but I couldn’t find many of them on a map. They appear to be so generic that there are scores of them scattered across the vast empty spaces of western Russia and Belarus. The landscape – frozen marshes, snow-capped forest, secret hideouts – is as stark and primeval as the elementary human relationships it is describing. Men and women are reduced to their basest needs: food, shelter, a smoke, companionship. It is the minimal landscape, the psychological ground zero of Waiting For Godot (1953).

After walking for more than ten days Mendel and Leonid come to the ‘republic of the marshes’, based on an abandoned monastery hidden in the forest and inhabited by a group of armed Jewish survivors. It is ruled by Dov, in his fifties, who comes from faraway Siberia where the comet exploded and destroyed hundreds of miles of trees. The Germans have not got anywhere near Siberia so he’s one of the few characters who can be confident that his native village still exists and the people he knew will still be alive. Almost all the others know their villages have been burned and everyone they knew murdered by the Germans. Mendel and Leonid are welcomed to the ‘republic’ and given tasks  in the routines of chores, foraging, guarding, cooking, as autumn comes on, August and September.

At which point the group get a tip-off that a German force is in the area, trying to track down surviving partisan bands. There is just time to prepare some defences, to build camouflaged trenches, when the Germans attack. There’s a big firefight with machine guns – the heaviest weapons the partisans possess. The fleetest of foot escape out the back while some see the slower members being caught, lined up against a wall and shot by laughing SS officers. Old Adam was wounded in the thigh and bleeds to death a little distance away. His daughter, Sissla, keeps on, weeping. Ten partisans survived the attack.

Ulybin’s partisans

Dov leads the survivors north where, after weeks of travel, they stumble into guards for a larger band led by a tough man named Ulybin. This is based in three wooden barracks hidden in forest near Turov (p.74). These are Russian and Polish partisans, not Jews. They accept the Jews as allies but, in a series of personal encounters, explain that they finds them strange and uncanny. They tell them they had included a group of Jews, led by the eccentric Gedaleh Skidler, but he didn’t get along with Ulybin and, after one almighty argument, Gedaleh had led them off.

Some Red Army officers appear with information and supplies. Dov, injured at the monastery and visibly aged since, reluctantly goes off with them, to what they all refer to as ‘the Great Land’, meaning Russia, free Russia unoccupied by the Germans, but making it sound like a country from an allegory.

In another sequence the partisans discover a handful of Germans have built a triangle of fires a few days march away, which they are lighting to get German planes to drop supplies. Ulybin selects a group of the fittest men to carry out a small mission, to walk across country to the strip, to shoot the handful of Germans who man it, and create an alternative drop zone a mile away, then returning to the barracks with their booty (p.103). All goes according to plan, and the partisans feast their eyes sorting through the food and munitions. But next night the German planes drop bombs fly low over the fake landing zone and drop bombs instead of supplies. Somehow they’ve learned about the partisans’ trick. Several men are killed by the bombs.

The Gedalists go their own way

To everyone’s surprise, twenty or so pages after he went off to ‘the Great Land’, Dov returns with Russians bearing supplies, and accompanied by the troupe of Jewish partisans led by Gedaleh. They had been in Lyubin when the Germans took it and killed all the Jews they could find. They escaped into the woods and here they are. Gedaleh holds a summit meeting with Ulybin. Ulybin’s men have been ordered East to join up with Red Army forces. Gedaleh considers he has different aims, to head West, harass the Germans, and break through the line.

The survivors split into two groups, Gentiles going with Ulybin, all the Jews deciding to follow Gedaleh, plus one token Russian, Piotr, who can’t explain it but feels he’s come to like and respect the Jews. There is a moving scene where he tries to put into words why he likes them, egged on and ridiculed in equal parts by his Jewish audience. It is one of the many scenes where the nature of Jewishness – what is it to be a ‘Jew’ – is discussed, probably the most prominent theme in the book.

The rest of the novel follows the epic trek of Gedaleh and his thirty or so partisans who come, over a period of time, to refer to themselves as the ‘Gedalists’. Gedalah is much more emotional and unpredictable than Ulybin. He used to be a shoe salesman and keeps an old violin with him in homage to the time it stopped a bullet going for his heart, at Luninetz, and which he later ironically decorated with a medal taken from a dead Hungarian. He partners off with one of the five or so women in the group, plain, lazy, bubble-bursting Bella. Gedaleh’s mercurial character, his flashes of humour, his impulsive decisions, his quickness to take up the violin and start playing a Jewish folk tune, are a major flavour in the rest of the book.

In the windmill

After weeks of trekking, the Gedalists hide out in an abandoned windmill miles from anywhere. One of the youngest in the group, Isidor, can’t stop himself paring away the mould from the walls and eating it. He is 17, and hid from the Germans in a hole under a stable with the rest of his Jewish family for four years, until the peasants hiding them had milked them of all their money at which point they betrayed them to the Germans. Isidor, who happened to be taking one of the rare permitted walks into the woods at the time, returned to watch, from hiding, a squad of teenage Nazis beat his mother, sister and father to death. He ran away, survived for weeks in the wild, then stumbled upon the group, but has been mentally disturbed ever since, given to compulsive behaviour and obsessed with fantasies of revenge.

On one of the peaceful evenings, Gedaleh plays folk tunes on his violin and then an arrangement of a long poem by a Jew, Martin Fontasch. Gedaleh tells his story. Martin was a writer who escaped to join a partisan band. When the Germans captured him they gave him thirty minutes to write a last poem, before they shot him.

Do you recognise us? We’re the sheep of the ghetto,
Shorn for a thousand years, resigned to outrage.
We are the tailors, the scribes and the cantors,
Withered in the shadow of the cross.
Now we have learned the paths of the forest,
We have learned to shoot, and we aim straight.

If I’m not for myself, who will be for me?
If not this way, how? And if not now, when? (p.127)

Here, as in scores of other memories and vignettes on almost every page, the novel stuns and appals with the understated way the characters share stories of horror and unendurable suffering. Each of them is a survivor and a witness to barbaric atrocity.

Along the trek, Leonid who we first met in the opening pages, had paired off with Line, a skinny, blonde woman named after the English suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. But one night Mendel, overcome by memories of his dead wife and exterminated village and, very characteristically, recalling the women and love affairs of the Patriarchs and Elders from the Old Testament, finds himself seducing Line. They silently climb the stairs to the windmill’s rickety upper floors and make dry, sad (and, one imagines, very dirty) love. But Line was the only thing keeping Leonid together and next morning he is gone, along with a machine gun, to Geladeh’s fury.

The relief of Chmielnik

Having crossed the border from Belarus into Poland, the Gedalists hear from locals about a small concentration camp or Lager at the nearby town of Chmielnik, and go on a mission to liberate it (p.170). There is a great deal of tension on the long walk through the snow to get there and they arrive only to discover they are too late to save most of the inmates, who have been shot and incinerated. The air of the surrounding area is heavy with the ashes of incinerated human beings. Behind the barbed wire fence remain only ten walking skeletons.

The partisans approach carefully, realising the watchtowers are abandoned, their machine guns gone, but there are one or two guards patrolling the perimeter. The terrifying character known as Mottel the throat-cutter silently kills the ones out patrolling, and then the partisans attack the guardhouse with grenades. At least one guard survives and prompts a prolonged firefight, before they storm the building, finish off the wounded and drag the officer outside. The partisans bicker and quarrel about what to do until the German stands to attention and says, ‘Get on with it’, and they shoot him.

In the brief firefight Leonid, who had rejoined them, is shot dead. He had given up the will to live anyway. But not as much as the Lager inmates. Only one will even walk out the gates, and he hasn’t gone far into the woods with the partisans before he asks to go back.

The Free Polish Army

The Gedalists hear that there’s a long goods train in a siding at a town nearby, Tunel, and go to loot it then sabotage it. Here they are unexpectedly surrounded by armed men led by Edek, 23, leader of a squad of the Free Polish Army, the Armia Krajowa, and Marian, his experienced sergeant. The Gedalists are disarmed while Edek seeks guidance from his superiors (p.184). The Gedalists settle into a modus vivendi with the Poles.

In November the Polish Army group picks up a distress call from a group of fellow Poles surrounded by Wehrmacht forces in the nearby Holy Cross mountains (p.196). The Gedalists volunteer to help, and set off accompanying Edek’s Poles to travel across country for several days. When they arrive, the mountain is shrouded in fog. They make their way slowly to the summit, intending to surprise the surrounding Germans, and so help the besieged forces escape. But the firefight which kicks off is very confused, it’s never clear where the enemy actually is, and after chaotic firing and explosions, they appear to disappear altogether into the fog.

As our guys climb the mountain they discover nothing but dead bodies and a fortress at the top completely filled with emaciated corpses. The Germans had starved them to death then left. Once again they are too late. Once again the forces of Death triumph. The Jews lament and Mendel, who has emerged as a moral focus of the text, wonders why, why does evil prevail?

The Russians arrive

Back at the barracks the partisans are celebrating a wedding. A while earlier Gedaleh had suggested that a way to ‘cure’ young Isidor might be to make a man of him, to take his virginity and the woman they call White Rokhele, ten years older, had obliged. Now they are very definitely an item and Rokhele comes to Mendel, who has established a sort of authority, as a man who knows prayers and sprinkles his conversation with Biblical blessings and references, asking him to marry them.

In the middle of the celebrations, a terrifying bombardment kicks off, deafening everything, a monstrous barrage of shells and munitions screaming overhead, some landing terrifyingly close. Initially the Gedalists think it’s a German attack on them, but then realise it’s actually a full scale attack by the nearby Russians on the German lines. The front line of the war in the East has crept up to them and now is passing right over them (p.210).

In the midst of the chaos one of the partisans on guard duty outside crashes through the door, clutching a man they think might be a spy, named Schmulek, who he found prowling round just before the bombardment began. But Schmulek claims to be a partisan like themselves and begs to be allowed to take them to his hideout. Amid the deafening din of the shells, some of the Gedalists follow Schmulek through the woods to a well. In its walls are embedded steps down which they clamber to find the entrance to a cave. In fact to a warren of caves. At one stage, Schmulek tells them, 200 Jews took refuge here. Now all of them are dead except him – in the middle of this chaos more memories of atrocity and murder. Our partisans cower in the dark, listening to the inhuman rage of the guns over their heads.

The schoolhouse at Wolbrom

Next morning, when they emerge from the well-cave into the unnaturally quiet landscape, it is to find the well surrounded by laughing Russian soldiers. A political commissar turns up and the mood changes. He rounds up the other survivors from the Gedalists’ ‘barracks’, and they are disarmed and driven off to the nearby town of Wolbrom. Here the Red Army authorities accommodate them in an abandoned school and feed them, they are treated alright, even though the commissar is sceptical about their story of being real genuine fighting partisans. He thinks Jews can only be helpless victims. But while they await some kind of orders from above about what to do with the Gedalists, and the weeks go by, right-wing Poles start to hassle them. First they daub anti-Semitic slogans on the walls, then chuck a Molotov cocktail through the window. It is time to leave (p.221).

The Lager at Glogau

The Gedalists steal a lorry from a vast vehicle dump near the railway station and head West towards Glogau, just inside Germany (though, after the war, it became part of Poland). The high anxiety of stealing the lorry at night, and then the bickering and arguing about who should drive the truck (since none of them know how to drive) are described with deadpan humour. But some days down the road they run into a platoon of Red Army soldiers under the command of an angry corporal who impounds their vehicle and they are again detained – but this time behind the barbed wire of the former Lager or concentration camp at Glogau (p.230).

But it is not under concentration camp conditions. Once again they are fed and watered by the Red Army. And the officer in charge is a puzzle: he claims to be named Smirnov, Captain Smirnov, but Mendel and the others suspect he is a Jew pretending to be ethnic Russian.

One by one Smirnov calls the partisans in for interviews. To Mendel he explains that he wants them to write their story. He wants a record made of this vast panorama of chaos and destruction and suffering. The Gedalists mingle with other camp inhabitants and hear their – generally horrifying – stories. A French woman in particular recounts her long harrowing journey from Paris high society to the lowest pit of hell in a concentration camp. It is just the latest of the many harrowing accounts which stud the text, which make it not just the story of a handful, but emblematic of an entire generation, of an entire race hunted to near extinction.

Eventually it is May 1945. The Gedalists wake up one day and all the Russians are gone. The camp gates are open. Smirnov leaves a note telling them where to find a stash of machine guns and ammunition. The Gedalists move out, heading west further into Germany.

Vengeance in Neuhaus

The end of May finds them at the German village of Neuhaus, near Dachau. The German army has surrendered. The Americans are in charge. The towns and roads are packed with displaced persons trying to find their way home. In Neuhaus they find themselves among a crowd of Germans, who mutter anti-Semitic insults. Suddenly there’s a shot from somewhere, and the woman they call Black Rokhele slumps to the ground and quickly dies (p.241). The crowd vanishes, it is impossible to tell who did it.

That night the male Gedalists go on a revenge attack, breaking into the local Rathaus or town hall, killing the bodyguards, throwing grenades, executing all the men they find. Ten Germans for one Jew. Exactly as the Germans did in so many of their occupied territories. And, being Jews, they debate it fiercely afterwards: is revenge justified? Bible heroes carry out vengeance, so does God condone or forbid it? If it’s wrong why, as Jozak says, does it feel so right?

Mendel, who has emerged as the reader’s representative in the text, simultaneously the most Jewish (the most learned in Bible teaching and Talmudic law) and the most sceptical of the group, can’t decide. To be a Jew seems to involve being endlessly plagued with questions and anxieties.

But mostly, the Gedalists just want to get out of Europe, out of this place where there is no safety and no escape from endless persecution and contempt.

They hand themselves into the American authorities, who note their names, then let them go on their way, in their easygoing  Yankee manner – so unlike the murderous Germans or suspicious Poles or unreliable Russians. They walk on to Plauen, to the big railway station here, on the main Berlin to Italy line (p.246).

Train to Italy

The Geladists find a derelict house in the town to make a base and set about bartering for food. Over the next few days Geladeh chats up one of the men who works on the German railroad, who plays the flute. They are to be seen playing flute and violin duets. Abruptly, one night, Geladeh announces he’s got his railway friend to arrange for an entire carriage on the next train heading south to be made available to them. It’s a hush hush operation and in the middle of the night the surviving 31 Geladists pack their few belongings into the carriage, which the railroad man attaches to the long locomotive. The whistle blows and it sets off chuntering slowly south towards Italy.

The British Army Jews

At the border of the Brenner Pass, the train is stopped and the carriage opened by British Palestine Jews, operating with the British Army but licensed to help and rescue surviving Jews (p.256). There follows a long discussion about whether to accept their help or not during which their spokesman, Chaim, lays out the merits of going to Palestine but on condition they hand over their weapons at the border to the Allied border guards and declare themselves stateless persons. After much debate among the group, they agree.

Milan

The train rumbles into the bombed-out central station at Milan. The British Army Jews had given them the address of the Assistance Centre for Jews in the city. Processed through here, they are sent out of the city to a farm in the countryside, where the Geladists are housed in peace and comfort, where there is regular food, all they have to do is help with the farm work, sometimes loading rather heavy crates, which they suspect are full of weapons, onto trucks (p.266). All of them now want to leave Europe and make their way to Palestine to found a new state, a state where Jews won’t live in fear.

They are surprised to be invited to a party in the city, given by a very swanky fashionable couple. Four or five go and find themselves completely ill at ease among city dwellers, a type none of them have ever known, and who poke and prod them like zoo animals. ‘If they knew everything we’d done, they’d be scared of us,’ says Mendel (p.269). And the reader has become so inured to the hardships and horrors of their journey, that we too feel uncomfortable – we resent the tourist superficiality of the well-heeled Milanese who seem to have come through the war unscathed and enjoy the frisson of talking to real genuine partisans!

In the middle of their embarrassment, there’s a phone call from the farm. Their comrade, the one they call White Rokhele who Mendel married to Isidor on the night of the great bombardment, and who the text has recorded becoming more and more heavily pregnant over the past few months, has gone into labour and been rushed to hospital.

With relief the Gedalists exit the party and catch a taxi to the maternity hospital, there to meet with their comrades, Izu, Bella, and the baby’s father, Isidor, the one who saw his own family beaten to death by the SS, the one who Rokhele ‘healed’ with love and sex, now pacing the room like any expectant father.

It is a painful labour, there are complications, doctors and nurses rush in and out and tell our guys to be patient, while all along I had a bad feeling that God (and the author) might pull one more brutal hurt from his bag.

But no – Rokhele is safely delivered of a baby boy. And as the small group huddle round laughing and celebrating, another group, of nurses and doctors, is huddled round a newspaper that’s just been brought in, with an enormous headline. A new kind of weapon, an atomic bomb, has been detonated at a place in Japan named Hiroshima. And on this ominous, on this world-threatening note, the novel ends.

New life has come into the world. The mother’s friends celebrate. But a new technology which could end the entire world and place all previous barbarity in the shade, has entered at the same moment. God and the author have left a bitter blow to the end, not the one I expected, one much bigger and which shadows our lives to this day.


Jewish

‘A dozen rivers can’t wash away the Yiddish accent’ (p.5)

The book is saturated in Jewish traditions, Jewish proverbs, Jewish stories, Jewish music and humour, rabbinical teachings, with numerous characters referring to (what we Gentiles call) ‘Old Testament’ characters, as if they lived only recently, as if their lives provide useful examples of how to behave now, people to compare ourselves against, here in the midst of the worst calamity humankind has ever known.

He, Mendel, if they were to ask him his age, and he decided to answer sibcerely, what would he say? Twenty-eight, according to his papers, a bit older when it came to his joints, his lungs and heart; ans on his back a mountain of years, more than Noah and Methuselah. Yes, more than they, since Methuselah begot Lamech at the ripe old age of one hundred eighty-seven, and Noah was five hundred when he brought Shem, Ham and Japheth into the world, six hundred when he built the ark, and a little older when he got drunk for the first time… No, he, Mendel the watchmender, roaming about the woods, was older than they. (p.23)

Many of the characters speak only Yiddish, and the book is alive with the language itself, and its traditions, stories, jokes and riddles, with its peculiar kind of argumentative wisdom, with its vivid words and phrases.

‘You’re a nebbish, a loser, a meshuggener.’ (p.30)

And also rings with the prayers and blessings and the age-old laments of persecuted Jews, updated to reference all the innovations of modern evil:

The Holy One, blessed be He, why was he hiding behind the grey clouds of Polessia instead of succouring his people? ‘You have chosen us among the nations’: why us exactly? Why do the wicked prosper, why are the helpless slaughtered, why bare their hunger, mass graves, typhus, and SS flamethrowers into holes crammed with terrified children? (p.61)

Why indeed? And why – everywhere they go – the unremitting hostility, anger and hatred of almost all the Gentiles, the contempt, suspicion, spitting, threats and violence, the Jew-baiting and Jew-hatred, why the virulent genocidal anti-Semitism which the characters experience or recall on almost every page?

The novel offers no answers, no redemption, except for the vitality of the text itself and the words and memories and lives and consciousnesses of the characters it creates. Implicitly, its message is that People are our salvation. There is no God. There is no Heaven. Life. Being alive. Living, breathing, thinking, are the greatest, the deepest, the fathomlessly profoundest gift. Everyone who spits on Life, holds Life cheap, who kills, alienates himself from the God who made us.

The story is its own justification. It bears witness to atrocities and suffering beyond anyone’s capacity to imagine. Yet it pulls and gathers this unspeakable horror into the great European art form, the novel, which proves able to takes all the abuse which can be hurled at it, only to emerge stronger and more powerful.

Not many writers can really be called ‘wise’. Many, especially many British and American writers, are merely provocative – creators of brands and personas which are good for a quote or a facile phrase, poolside entertainers, producers of fictions which morph seamlessly into TV dramas or Hollywood movies.

Levi is different. Even translated into another language, his books have a depth and dignity in their phrasing and rhythm, a restraint which accepts the full depths of horror but doesn’t give in to hysteria or despair, effortless insight into extremes of human psychology, which lift him onto another plane.

This is an astonishing novel, resonating on countless levels, which deserves to be read and reread and reread, to appal, to terrify, to teach and to inspire.


Credit

Se non ora, quando? by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi Editore, Turin in 1982; in English translation by Simon and Schuster in 1985; by Michael Joseph in the UK in 1985. All references are to the Abacus paperback edition of 1987.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is on Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomo – If This Is a Man (translated into English 1959)
1963 La tregua – The Truce (trans: 1965)
1966 Storie naturali – Short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of Jewish ‘partisans’, from Russia, through Poland and Germany into Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance amidst the collapse of European ‘civilisation’.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988)
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

Georgia O’Keeffe @ Tate Modern

Georgia O’Keeffe lived a long and fruitful life, from 1887 to 1986, dying aged 98. She is, according to the exhibition blurb, a ‘foundational figure within the history of Modernism in the United States’. This is an appropriately big exhibition, filling 14 rooms with works representing all periods of her career and covering all her major ‘themes’, taken in more or less chronological order. It also includes contemporary books and magazine articles about her, as well as the work of several of the major photographers she knew or worked with.

Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie's II by Georgia O’Keeffe (1930) Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II by Georgia O’Keeffe (1930) Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Room 1. The early years O’Keeffe grew up on a farm in rural Wisconsin and knew she wanted to be an artist from an early age. She came to New York in 1907, studied with various teachers, and first exhibited in 1916, having her first solo show the following year. The early work includes many abstracts. She was experimenting with colour and line, influenced by her precocious reading of Kandinsky – she was one of the first readers of his classic Concerning the Spiritual in Art which was translated into English in 1914. And by the notion of synaesthesia – that music can be perceived as colour and vice versa.

She also made a number of drawings in charcoal, abstract swirls and flowing designs, which I found among the most compelling works in the show.

Room 2. Abstraction and the senses O’Keeffe lived in New York from the Great War till the Wall Street Crash (1929), experimenting with her own personal brand of abstraction and struggling to establish a name. The audio commentary emphasises from the start the struggle O’Keeffe had in a predominantly male art world. She hated being called a woman artist and rebelled against the criticisms and limitations of the male artists and critics of the day, especially those who deprecated watercolour as a soft, ‘woman’s’ medium. In fact she made lots of attractive, swirling, abstract watercolours.

Here in room 2 we meet an early crux of this issue of ‘gendered’ criticism, the painting she called Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow. Some critics at the time said it resembled a woman’s genitals, and used this ‘insight’ as a launch pad to discuss – and belittle – all her work in the same sexist terms, much to the artist’s anger and frustration. The audio commentary tells us that this ‘gendered’ interpretation was revived by a new wave of feminist artists and critics in the 1970s, who asserted these kinds of works were bold and innovative depictions of female sexuality.

To be honest, if the commentary hadn’t drummed home this line of interpretation, I don’t think it would have crossed my mind. But once it had been raised, and repeated a number of times, I found it harder to ‘forget’ that she was a woman artist. Particularly as O’Keeffe herself was quoted on the wall labels or on the audio commentary repeating her criticism of the male artists and critics of her time as bombastic, blinkered, limited and ignorant of ‘the real America’.

Room 3. O’Keeffe, Stieglitz and their circle In New York O’Keeffe fell passionately in love with the pioneering art photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). He was 54 and married, so she became his mistress until he finally managed to secure a divorce from his first wife and marry her.

Stieglitz was a well-established presence on the New York art scene, apparently single-handedly making photography into a respected art form, and he also ran galleries which promoted a range of other artists. This room contains a large number of his striking photos. He did a series of studies of clouds, grouped under the title of Equivalents which I found very attractive.

There are contemporary books by artists and writers he knew, manifestos and magazine articles, all conveying the artistic activity of the period. During this period Stieglitz also did a series of black and white studies of his lover, O’Keeffe, in all sorts of poses, close-ups of hands, of her face, wearing different clothes and costumes, with masks and props, as well as a series of striking nude studies. According to the commentary these are ‘the most important nudes in US art history’.

Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz (1918) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles ©The J. Paul Getty Trust

Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz (1918) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © The J. Paul Getty Trust

Stieglitz included the nudes in an exhibition of his photos in the early 1920s. Not surprisingly, for many critics and viewers O’Keeffe’s name became associated with these candid and striking photos of her naked body. There was a gap of a few years before she had the next exhibition of her paintings, whereupon the first thing critics and viewers associated her with was the nudes. A naked woman making paintings which look like vaginas – it is sad but true that O’Keeffe spent decades trying to throw off the limitations and gendered stereotypes which were created in these early years.

Room 4. New York cityscapes The 1920s were the Jazz Era and skyscrapers were going up all over New York, which became a byword for urban energy and excitement. O’Keeffe made lots of paintings trying to capture the energy and excitement of the city in bold vibrant colours. There are roughly two types of painting in this room. Much the more attractive are the stark blue and black night scenes:

Less interesting are the daytime scenes of the city, seen as a rather grey, smoky conurbation. These reminded me of the dreary the urban landscapes of L.S. Lowry who, as it happens, was born the same year as O’Keeffe.

Again the paintings are set against contemporary b&w photos of the city by Stieglitz and other art photographers. The best of her night pictures are more vivid than any of the photos.

Room 5. Lake George The Stieglitz family had a summer home near Lake George in upstate New York and room is devoted to paintings of the lake and the landscape and the house.

By this, the fifth room, I was beginning to get a feel for the variety of subject matter in O’Keeffe’s work, and for her tendency to make the subjects simpler and more colourful. But this room for the first time included works which seemed bland and under-powered. Looking back I realised the early abstracts are sort of nice but nowhere near as creative and fanciful as contemporary works in Europe by the likes of Kandinsky or Klee. The New York cityscapes are colourful, but lack the Modernist angularity of the European tradition. And now some of these lakeside paintings looked positively amateurish.

Room 6. Flowers and still lifes Room six is devoted to examples of her most famous subject, flowers. The commentary tells us that Jimson Weed (below) recently sold for $44 million, the highest price ever fetched by a ‘woman artist’ – before going on to tell us that the phrase ‘woman artist’ is one O’Keeffe herself would have angrily rejected. Why use it, then?

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 by Georgia O’Keeffe (1932) Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA. Photography by Edward C. Robison III © 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 by Georgia O’Keeffe (1932) Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA. Photography by Edward C. Robison III © 2016 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

But you can see why images like this or Oriental Poppies are so popular: big, striking, colourful and completely undemanding.

There is an obvious continuity of style between the gentle abstraction of Grey Lines, the simplified clouds in New York Street and the stylised leaves and washy blue background in Jimson. Simple design. Bold, though pastelly, colours.

However, although there are 20 or so canvases of flowers in this room, not many of them are as big or as striking as the two mentioned above. If you google “O’Keeffe flowers” you get hundreds of images – big, bright, wonderful pictures which could fill lots of rooms.

It was at this point that I began to suspect that the exhibition, though comprehensive in scope, maybe doesn’t include O’Keeffe’s best work.

Room 7. New Mexico: Taos and Alcalde Like many other artists, O’Keeffe discovered the American South-West in the 1930s. This room features her paintings of the bleak, arid, desert landscape, with its stark adobe churches and primitive settlements.

There is a bright simplicity to all these paintings, but I was unimpressed by the lack of energy or excitement in them, with their unadventurous composition and flat placid colouring.

The room features the work of contemporary photographers of the same landscape and subjects taken by her friends Paul Strand and Anselm Adams, which I found much more forceful, more angled, more highlighted and distinct and interesting.

Room 8. From the faraway, nearby: the skull paintings In the desert she found skeletons picked white and clean. She took to juxtaposing accurate depictions of the skulls of deer and other animals against her stylised landscapes. There’s a great quote, repeated in the commentary and on the wall, in which she belittles all the men she knew in New York who were talking about the ‘Great American’ this, that or the other, when none of them had even been across the Hudson River – whereas O’Keeffe saw herself as a pioneer, out in the desert, in touch with the ‘real’ America, discovering ‘the Great American things’.

All the skull paintings in this room are good, in an often surreal way (though she and the commentary deny she was ever a surrealist). But – I don’t really know why – none of them grabbed me or arrested my attention, made me think Wow!

Room 9. Ghost ranch The ‘ghost ranch’ was a real place, a ‘dude’ ranch where Easterners came out West to play at being cowboys. O’Keeffe came across it in 1934 and was entranced by the powerful views from it. She rented a house on the property from 1937, and bought it in 1940. This room contains paintings of the surrounding landscape.

Maybe it’s me but I began to find all these semi-abstract, simplified landscapes to be increasingly samey. The commentary describes her increasing interest in ‘seriality’, by which they mean doing paintings of the same subject over and over again. When does repetition topple over into repetitiveness?

Room 10. The black place and the white place The commentary tries hard to convey to the listener the mystique O’Keeffe clearly felt for the hills and ranches and locations she painted. There was the ‘white place’, a stretch of limestone cliffs along the Chama River, and the ‘black place’, apparently a fold of black rock in some hills. But there’s not much to latch on to. The blandness of the names tells you something.

I also became aware of the lack of any people in the paintings, and the absence of any cultural reference. There’s nothing about the myths or legends of the local peoples (had they all been killed off by the time O’Keeffe settled there?) or pioneer tales of the white people who settled here.

In Hollywood this was the era of gripping films noirs, of big cities, wise guys, classy dames, noisy shoot outs. Of wide-finned automobiles and Coca Cola bottles. None of this whatsoever, nothing of contemporary American life, is in these paintings – which retail a landscape emptied and depopulated, bereft of any forms of organic life, no birds, no animals, no humans – nothing alive.

Instead – lots of series of more or less the same views.

Room 11. The series: Abiquiú patios, pelvis bones and cottonwood trees She worked more and more on ‘series’ of the same subject. In this room are examples from three series: the patio of a house, the blue desert sky seen through the hole in the pelvis bone of dead animals, and numerous versions of the local cottonwood trees.

The pelvis bones have a certain stark simplicity which quickly grows a little boring. I disliked the wishy-washy leaves and foliage of the trees series.

Room 12. The South-West According to the commentary, O’Keeffe’s ‘practice’ in the American Southwest involved ‘penetrating what it meant to find the essence of America’. Well, that essence seems to consist of desert landscapes emptied of all people. You could say it represents a wholesale and complete turning-her-back on the actual nature of American society in the 1930s (Great Depression), 1940s (Second World War), and 1950s (Cold War and atomic threat).

Instead, this room displays the series of paintings she made of ‘kachinas’, figurines of spirit beings which the local Indians carved in wood. But nothing anywhere of the actual Indians.

Room 13. Late abstractions and skyscapes By the 1950s O’Keeffe was flying to and fro across the skies, as were increasingly wealthy Americans generally. On one flight, looking down on the great carpet of clouds below, it seemed to her almost as if she could open the plane door and step out onto a soft woolly carpet. As my son put it, ‘that must be one of the most unoriginal observations ever made’. She also noticed that, seen from a plane, landscapes often seem like abstract patterns. Not unlike her paintings. And so this room of late abstracts collects paintings based on these rather under-powered ‘insights’.

Thoughts

After initial interest I became steadily more underwhelmed by this big exhibition and, by the last few rooms, I was impatient for it to end. In the whole show I liked the Oriental Poppies and the Paul Strand and Anselm Adams’s b&w photographs of the South-West, and found almost everything else very ‘meh’.

Searching Google Images for many of the links above, I’ve been struck by how many of the paintings which show up in the search results are much more bright and interesting than anything in the show, especially the flower paintings. It’s just possible that, although the show is a very thorough overview of her entire career, many of the best paintings are in private hands or for one reason or another, simply not available.

That might explain why, although she may well be ‘a foundational figure within the history of Modernism in the United States’, not many of the individual works here really justified that large a claim.

Related links

The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst (2006)

Furst

Furst’s novels are all historical spy adventures, set in Continental Europe, often in Eastern Europe or the Balkans, in the dark days before the Second World War and on into the early years of the conflict. They feature fairly ordinary, everyday guys who become reluctantly embroiled in ‘spying’, in its unglamorous, everyday forms – receiving and passing on information, meeting people from foreign powers who slowly take control of your life, who persuade you to take risks you’d prefer not to. So:

  • In Blood of Victory (set in late 1940 and 1941) the Russian émigré writer, Ilya Serebin, finds himself slowly drawn into a plot to sink barges in the Danube river to choke off Nazi Germany’s supply of oil from Romania.
  • In Dark Voyage (set over two months in 1941) grizzled Dutch merchant captain, Eric DeHaan, finds himself reluctantly recruited into the Dutch Royal Navy and carrying out a number of clandestine voyages, ferrying Allied soldiers, arms and equipment on a number of hazardous missions around the Mediterranean.

The Foreign Correspondent

Although they go off on missions to the East, many of Furst’s protagonists are based in Paris, safe haven for many exiles as the grim 1930s progressed. This novel, though it features trips to Berlin and Prague, is more rooted than most i the boulevards and cafés of the city of light, and includes a map of Paris at the start, with key locations in the story marked on it.

It follows the ‘adventures’ of Italian émigré journalist Carlo Weisz. He’s landed a good job as Paris correspondent for Reuters, where he’s looked after by an understanding manager, Delahanty, who doesn’t mind that in the evenings Weisz helps write and organise an anti-Fascist, anti-Mussolini freesheet, Liberazione, cobbled together by half a dozen Italian refugees who meet at the Café Europa, the galleys then smuggled to Italy, where it’s printed and distributed via an informal network.

The text is divided into four long parts, within which the numerous sub-sections are simply divided by line breaks. As with all Furst’s novels, these short sections come with date stamps  and sometimes precise times of day, to convey the pace of events, and give a sense of urgency and thrill.

The narrative covers events between 4 December 1938 and 11 July 1939, ie the dark slide towards war, and features the following true historical events:

  • The Nazi occupation of the remainder of Czechoslovakia, beginning 15 March 1939
  • Victory of the Nationalist (fascist) forces in the Spanish Civil War on 1 April 1939
  • 7 April the Italian navy bombarded the coast of Albania, then invaded
  • Signing of the Pact of Steel, 22 May 1939

Dark times, darkly captured and broodingly conveyed.

1. In the Resistenza

We meet Weisz in Civil War Spain, as that conflict grinds to an end, accompanied by the veteran female journalist, Mary McGrath, and driven around by a driver provided by the Republican side. They visit the front lines, are shot at by Nationalist soldiers across the river, then briefly interview the legendary ‘Colonel Ferrara’, an Italian commanding an International Brigade on the Republican side, then drive off to the nearest town to file their reports.

Back in Paris, the high profile Italian exile, vociferous opponent of Mussolini, and editor of Liberazione, Bottini, is assassinated by agents of OVRA, while in bed with his mistress Madame LaCroix. It is a warning to other exiles, and we are introduced to the head of the little squad which carries out the execution, an Italian nobleman and committed Fascist, Count Amandola. But as Mme LaCroix happens to have been the wife of a French politician, this prompts the French police to open a murder investigation which will wind on for the rest of the narrative.

Thus it is that on returning to Paris, Weisz discovers Bottini to be dead and is offered the editorship of Liberazione by the small band of exiles, led by Arturo Salamone, and which he reluctantly accepts. He feels it is his duty, and he is a good journalist, he should be able to manage. The meeting is followed by a short text which is the ‘report’ of ‘Agent 207’, summarising the decisions of the meeting. Aha. One of them is a spy, or at least an informer, passing on his reports to OVRA.

Soon afterwards, in a Paris bar, Weisz bumps into an acquaintance from his two years of study at Oxford, Geoffrey Sparrow, who is accompanied by his petite girlfriend, Olivia. She enjoys flirting with Weisz, who finds himself entranced by her ‘smart little breasts’ (p.43). They go on to another bar where Sparrow accidentally-on-purpose introduces Weisz to a ‘Mr Brown’, an obvious British agent (which we know for sure since we’ve met him in previous novels). So – the old friend act and the flirting were designed to ‘ensnare’ him. At this stage it’s just an introduction and an agreement that they’re on the same side, but we all know something more will come of it…

Weisz is invited to room 10 of the Sûreté National offices, to meet the French detectives investigating the Bottini murder. They let it be known that he’s being watched, and mention that an Italian official was recently expelled from France. Was that a threat or a tip-off? As so often in Furst, the main character is puzzled about what’s going on, about the deeper or ‘hidden’ meaning of sometimes the simplest conversations. As exiles, most of his protagonists are at the mercy of ‘the authorities’ and live with a permanent sense of insecurity.

Finding himself the attention of the British and French security services, and probably of OVRA into the bargain, Weisz not unnaturally becomes convinced he’s being followed, narrowing it down to a man in a check jacket who keeps popping up behind him in the street, then on the Métro. It’s mildly ironic then, when a completely different man leans over him in the Métro carriage and slips him an envelope before quickly exiting the carriage.

Weisz brings the envelope to the next meeting of the Liberazione group at the Café Europa, where it turns out to contain detailed technical specifications for what looks like a torpedo, the writing in Italian. A new design for an Italian torpedo? Who was the man who gave it to him working for? Is it a trap? Is the door about to burst open and French police find them with the evidence that they’re spies, so they’ll all be shot? Or is it a genuine bit of clandestine information but – who should it be passed on to? The French authorities? The British? Mr Brown?

This is typical of the fog of uncertainty in which Furst’s characters (and the reader) move. Also typical is the low level of suspense: it doesn’t feel like it matters all that much, and the group decide to burn the document quickly, which they do. And nothing happens. No police burst in. The man who gave it to Weisz never reappears. There are no repercussions at all. The novels are full of mysterious threats and loomings.

Weisz regularly fantasises about sex. He imagines making love with Sparrow’s girlfriend. He thinks about calling up his old girlfriend Véronique for sex. He fantasises about his lazy landlady Madam Rigaud, who has accidentally on purpose bumped his ample hips against him many a time. He remembers the myriad highly erotic encounters with his former German lover, Christa von Schurr. He remembers having sex with the well-known British spy and recruiter, Lady Angela Hope, who – apparently – made a great deal of noise, ‘as if he were Casanova’, twice, before attempting to wangle Italian state secrets out of him (futilely, it turns out). He goes to sleep.

2. Citizen of the Night

The Reuters man in Berlin, Wolf, is getting married and going on honeymoon, so Weisz’s boss, Delahanty, sends him to Berlin to cover. We have been privy to Weisz’s sensuous memories of making love with Christa – now he sees the assignment to meet her again. Sure enough, as soon as he contacts her she comes to his hotel room, and for the rest of his stay they meet every afternoon to enjoy a sequence of pornographic encounters, livened up by varieties of underwear and positions, and the ability to perform time after time. Underwear, panties, bra, camisoles are described in loving detail.

In between sex sessions, Christa invites Weisz out to a remote fairground where he is introduced to an unnamed man (p.88). He hands over a list of Nazi agents who have penetrated to high position in Italy, lots of them, over 150. Weisz is left wondering: Has Christa only revived the affair to ‘recruit’ him for her people, to make him a conduit to a free press outside Germany? What is he expected to with the list? Weisz experiences a familiar feeling of perplexity.

Furst’s men (they’re all men) move rather dreamily around Paris and other European capitals, cocooned in an atmosphere of good food, fine wines, bars and cafés high and low, seeming to end up in bed with a steady stream of uninhibited, easy and sexually inventive women, but plagued by obscure meetings and ambiguous conversations which leave them permanently puzzled about what they’re meant to be doing, and for who…

Germany threatens to occupy the remainder of Czechoslovakia which Hitler hadn’t already seized as a result of the Allied betrayal during the Munich Crisis (August 1938). And so Weisz’s boss tells him to pack and go by train from Germany to Prague to record the event.

He travels down with two other journalists, Hamilton of The Times and Simard from Havas, but the train is stopped by the Germans at Kralupy, before it reaches Prague. The three journalists pay the very reluctant town taxi to drive them through snow to the capital, the driver grumbling all the way. They’re still driving slowly around town when two students bundle into the car carrying a Nazi flag which they’ve torn down. Seems like a student prank for a few moments until a Gestapo car swings after them and starts shooting, bullets through the windows, little Simard gets injured and there’s frantic argument about how to tie a tourniquet. The taxi driver skedaddles through Prague’s snowy back streets to an old stables which the students know about, and where they help them hide out till the cops are gone.

In a separate plotline S. Kolb, a seedy little man who works for the British SIS (and who we have met in previous books) is despatched by his masters to track down Colonel Ferrara who we met in the opening pages. Ferrara had managed to escape from Spain after Madrid fell and the Spanish Civil War ended in March 1939. Kolb tracks him to a French internment camp near Tarbes, in the south, then bribes the camp’s commandant with a lot of francs to let Ferrara free.

At first sceptical that he’s going to be shipped back to Italy, Ferrara lets himself be persuaded into a taxi to a station, and then onto a train to Paris. Here Kolb fixes him up with a room at the Hotel Tournon and it is here that Weisz is introduced to him, via Mr Brown.

Mr Brown explains to Weisz that ‘they’ would like him to write Ferrara’s biography, the biography of an Italian patriot and hero who resisted Mussolini. Ferrara agrees; later, when Weisz puts it to the Liberazione group, they also agree. So Weisz gets into the habit of going every evening, after his main day’s work, to the Hotel Toulon, there to smoke lots of cigarettes and type up Ferrara’s life story.

In short order, Weisz dumps his Paris girlfriend, Véronique and buys a typewriter in a flea market. He uses it to type out copies of the list of Nazi agents in Italy which Christa gave him back in Germany and which he carried round Prague and back to Paris. He’ll post copies to the British and French authorities – the flea market typewriter was so they couldn’t match it against his own typewriter, if they manage to trace it to him,

This section closes with Furst giving us a brief sketch of the Liberazione‘s distribution network in Italy: the conductor on the Paris-to-Genoa train; Matteo, who works at the printing works of Italy’s second newspaper, Il Secolo and slips printing the free sheet in between bigger jobs; Antionio who drives a coal delivery truck from Genoa to Rapallo and takes copies with him; Gabriella and Lucia, 16-year-olds in a convent school in Genoa who help distribute free copies; ending with readers like Lieutenant DeFranco, a detective in the rough waterfront area of Genoa, who enjoys reading the copy posted in the police station’s lavatory.

3. The Pact of Steel

Back in Paris. Véronique phones to tell Weisz that a threatening man came to cross-question her about Weisz and Liberazione, pretending to be – but obviously not – a member of the Sûreté. The Liberazione group meet and discover that Salamone has been dismissed from his job. The threat from OVRA seems to be looming from different directions. Agent 207 reports the meeting.

Weisz is despatched by his Reuters boss to cover the crowd assembled outside the hotel where King Zog of Albania is discovered to be staying. King Zog shows himself at the balcony, some cheer, some throw bottles, the crowd turns ugly and Weisz is suddenly hit very hard on the head, by some kind of sharp but heavy implement, regaining consciousness on the floor and helped to a nearby café by a cop. Staggering home, he fears he’s being followed. Was it an OVRA attack? A random bit of thuggery?

Next evening he meets up with Ferrara to move the book forward, and finds Kolb and Brown there. They go to a ‘mad’ nightclub up in Pigalle, where the girls dance naked except for shoes. Here Ferrara picks up a fetching naked girl called Irina. The reader suspects this will end badly: possibly she, too, is an OVRA agent or will lure him to a sticky end…

News comes in to Reuters that Mussolini’s Foreign Minister, Count Ciano, is flying to Berlin to sign a so-called ‘Pact of Steel’ between Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Delahanty orders Weisz back to Berlin to cover it for the Italian point of view.

While Weisz is packing a new guest at the hotel looms menacingly at his door and we strongly suspect something bad is going to happen to Weisz, when the old hotel retainer Bertrand arrives puffing and panting up the stairs with Weisz’s plane tickets, thus saving him in the nick of time. The novels are full of close shaves, what-might-have-beens, or even perfectly innocent events which we – sharing the protagonist’s paranoia – think of as unnecessarily sinister. Thus in a hundred little ways, we enter the atmosphere of fear and suspicion which the characters move in…

Back in Berlin, Weisz gets a cryptic message from Christa inviting him to a party at a friend’s house. When he arrives at the apartment given on the invitation, there is no party and the door is open. He tiptoes through eerily empty rooms suspecting something bad has happened and, again, the reader is thinking the worst. But Christa is simply lying in bed, naked. She had fallen asleep. They have sex several times, as she explains that she thinks she’s being watched and so arranged this rendezvous at the apartment of a friend.

Weisz is an eye witness of the signing of the Pact of Steel at a formal hall in Berlin. Up till this moment the Italian exiles Weisz moves among have been hoping Italy will somehow keep out of Hitler’s mad plans, especially as Mussolini is on record as saying Italy wouldn’t be ready for war until 1943.

Weisz notices the changed atmosphere in Berlin, the number of uniforms on the street – SS, Gestapo, Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, Hitler Youth and so on, the expectation of violence. Then he’s back in bed with Christa.

Idly, he trailed a finger from the back of her neck down to where her legs parted, and she parted them a little more. (p.186)

When his trip ends he is upset, kisses Christa goodbye in the street, she walks away and out of sight, and he wonders if it’s forever. Oddly, as in all these Furst novels, I had absolutely no sense of emotional involvement or upset whatsoever. I see the logic of these characters’ emotions – but I don’t feel them. For me, these novels are like diagrams of emotion and feeling. Blueprints.

Back in Paris Weisz discovers the café where the Liberazione group meet has been burned down. Salamone has had a heart attack. Things are not looking good for our little group. The same man who pretended to be a Sûreté officer to interview Véronique, turns up at Elena’s workplace, the Galeries Lafayette, asking about her. Infuriated, Elena tails him through the Métro back to 62 Boulevard de Strasbourg. There’s a card claiming it’s the office of a photo agency. Next day Weisz rings the number on the card and establishes it’s an obvious front, they know nothing about press photos. Then Weisz goes along himself and finds letters in the postbox with Croatian names and addresses. Possibly agents of the Croatian Ustasha, sub-contracting to OVRA.

4. Soldiers for Freedom

Weisz and Ferrara continue working on the biography. Weisz reads in a newspaper a small article about a spy circle in Berlin being rounded up and imprisoned. His heart stops, as he thinks it must be Christa and her circle – and from this point onwards, for the last 60 or so pages of the novel, its protagonist’s overwhelming motivation is to find out what’s happening to Christa and try to ensure her safety.

Mr Brown takes Weisz to meet a ‘Mr Lane’, obviously a more senior SIS figure, who talks him into considering expanding the Liberazione operation, increasing the print runs, expanding the distribution network. Now that Mussolini is an official ally of Hitler, Britain will put more effort into trying to undermine his regime. But Weisz can only think about Christa.

Taking the initiative regarding the threat from OVRA, Weisz makes an appointment to see the inspectors investigating the Bottini murder. He takes along a case full of evidence about the phony Sûreté guys, and the evidence suggesting they are Ustashe agents operating illegally in France. They are interested. ‘Leave it with us; we’ll be in touch.’ At their next meeting they show Weisz photos, some of which he identifies as the men he’s seen. This confirms something the detectives knew (though they’re very vague about it to Weisz). As a sort of reward, they tell him there’s an OVRA agent within Liberazione, Zerba the art historian. Weisz is shocked, and so is Salamone when he tells him later. The latter’s first reaction is to kill him, but the police and Weisz had said No, let him continue  his activities.

Weisz has made a decision about the British suggestion to increase Liberazione activity: he asks Kolb if he can organise a meeting with his boss, Mr Brown. Here he asks if the SIS can find out Christa’s situation. Brown grudgingly agrees, but insists that, in return, Weisz a) hurry up and finish the Ferrara book b) agrees to go back to Italy to organise the printing and distribution of Liberazione on a much larger scale and in the process c) is seen, spreading the rumour of defiance, raising morale among the anti-Mussolini opposition.

Tense climax

And so the last forty pages of the novel follow Weisz’s tense journey across the border, to Genoa and then to clandestine meetings with the distribution network, as he pays Matteo to find extra capacity at the print works, meets an underworld fixer, Grassone, who can supply newsprint by the ton, and then is taken to meet an old Genoese criminal who is prepared to rent him a huge underground vault to operate in.

They’ve just been shown round the vault and emerged into the daylight into a busy marketplace, when rough hands are placed on Weisz’s collar and he realises a policeman is arresting him. He tries to get away, but is slapped and kicked to the ground and finds himself wriggling under a market stall. The cop is tugging at his legs when suddenly the market traders start throwing things at Pazzo, who turns out to be the well-known and much-hated local cop, such a barrage, that Pazzo is forced to turn and flee.

Leader of the vegetable throwers had been a huge old lady, Angelina. She picks Weisz up and dusts him off and then takes him off through a maze of alleys to a church, where she hands him over to Father Marco for safekeeping. Weisz realises he can’t go back to the hotel, so he’s abandoning his things and in fact the entire project.

Was he betrayed? Was it a misunderstanding (surely the OVRA would have sent a whole squad of heavies not a fat local policeman)? Who cares. Now he’s going home. But when he goes down to the docks to try and board the Hydraios, sailing back to Marseilles, part of the carefully worked out plan – he finds that the slack dock passport controller, Nunzio, has been joined by two serious looking detectives. There is no way through without being cross-questioned and arrested. Forlorn, he watches the ship slip its moorings and sail away.

Promptly Weisz abandons Genoa. He has money and so he buys a completely new outfit and travels to the resort of Portofino where he puts himself about among the rich tourists, hoping to get himself invited aboard one of the many rich tourists yachts. He fails with the Brits and the Americans, but then scores a success with the party of Sven, a self-made Dane, who shrewdly realises he’s in trouble but invites Weisz to join their yacht party anyway.

As if by magic, a few days later Weisz is back in Paris. And the last pages cut to Berlin where Kolb has been sent to extract Christa. Although she is being followed everywhere by the Gestapo, Kolb has a taxi driver follow her when she takes a group of Hitler Youth girls out to a lake (where many of them strip naked and frolic in the waves, to Kolb’s delight). He hisses at Christa from the treeline, and persuades her to come there and then, clamber into the boot of the car, be driven to a safe flat, where they’ll change her appearance, give her new papers and smuggle her into Luxembourg.

On the very last page Weisz arrives tired and demoralised back at the Hotel Dauphine, his Paris base, and the landlady. Madam Rigaud, tells him a new guest has checked in, a German countess, who seemed keen to see Herr Weisz. She’s put her in room 47.

Never has a man run up flights of stairs with such enthusiasm! To a joyous happy ending.


A web of characters

Blurbs on the books tend to praise the tremendous ‘atmosphere’ of Furst’s historical novels. I personally don’t find them ‘atmospheric’ so much as stuffed with an amazing grasp of historical detail and an astonishingly large cast of characters.

The novels feature not just the main protagonist (always a fairly average, if foreign, bloke: Serebin, DeHaan, Weisz) but a realistic web of secondary, tertiary and minor characters, many of whom only appear in fleeting scenes, but are given vivid thumbnail descriptions, quick lines, enough to make an impact and create the sense of a fully-populated imaginative world.

This way that the novels just teem with people and takes us to a wealth of urban settings and locations, helps the novels read like life, like confused, hectic, twentieth-century modern life in big cities, in huge industrialised nations lumbering towards war.

Characters

I set out to make a list of all the characters which appear in the book and was amazed at just how many of them there are.

  • Carlo Weisz, Italian émigré journalist, Paris-based correspondent for Reuters news agency, who works part time producing Liberazione, an anti-Mussolini free sheet.
  • Hotel Dauphine, Weisz’s home in Paris.
  • Madame Rigaud, landlady of the Hotel Dauphine, broad-hipped and complaisant, about whom he has vivid sexual fantasies.
  • Ettore, il Conte Amandola, agent of OVRA, the pro-fascist agency.
  • OVRA, the Organizzazione di Vigilanza e Repressione dell’Antifascismo (p.98)
  • Bottini, émigré lawyer from Turin and outspoken critic of Mussolini, he is assassinated by OVRA agents in the opening pages.
  • Madame LaCroix, Bottini’s plump noisy mistress. The OVRA agents murder her in bed with Bottini and make it look like he killed her then committed suicide, in order to achieve maximum humiliation of the anti-fascist figurehead. However, Mme LaCroix happened to be married to a French politician minister, and this draws the French Security forces into an investigation of her death, which will eventually draw Weisz into collaborating with them.
  • Staff of the Liberazione freesheet, who meet in the Café Europa:
    • Arturo Salamone, former insurance salesman in Italy, now main organiser of the paper
    • Sergio
    • Elena, fiery little exile
    • Michele Zerba, art historian from Siena (p.239)
  • giellisti (p.8) collective name of the opponents and resisters of Mussolini’s fascism, a conflation of Giustizia e Libertà (p.220).
  • Agent 207 – spy inside Liberazione group, we read his reports of the secret meetings immediately after they’ve happened – obviously he or she is one of the core members. Towards the end of the novel we learn the agent is Zerba, the art historian. (pp.29, 152)
  • confidente – Mussolini’s secret police / secret agents.
  • Mary McGrath, a veteran correspondent in her 40s (p.13) a journalist who we meet accompanying Weisz in Civil War Spain.
  • Sandoval, Spanish driver, assigned by the Republicans to drive Weisz and McGrath around the battlefield and to nearest towns to file his copy.
  • ‘Colonel Ferrara’ – nom de guerre of an Italian hero of the Great War who became an anti-Mussolini  figurehead and volunteered to fight in Spain, where has become a legendary figure (p.18). Kolb buys his freedom from a French internment camp and accompanies him to Paris where Weisz is engaged to write his heroic biography, Soldier for Freedom.
  • The military censor in Castelldans (p.24)
  • S. Kolb (p.50), a meagre little man, his career at a Swiss bank was ruined after he was (unfairly) caught embezzling money, then recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service, after which he has been thrown into all kinds of perilous situations. In this novel he is given the money to purchase Colonel Ferrara’s freedom, brings him to Paris, settles him in a safe apartment and supervises Weisz writing his biography.
  • Commandant of the French internment camp near Tarbes where Ferrara is being held.
  • Hotel Tournon – the Paris hotel Kolb books Ferrara into.
  • Monsieur Devoisin, a permanent undersecretary at the French Foreign Ministry, who Weisz visits for official briefings (p.61).
  • Irina – one night Ferrara, Weisz and Kolb go to a nightclub to blow away the blues, to the Club Chez les Nudistes, up in Pigalle, where the girls wear only high-heeled shoes and are illuminated by blue lights. She seduces Ferrara on the dance floor and quickly becomes his beloved – ‘she is my life. We make love all night.’ (p.235)
  • Véronique, one of Weisz’s lovers, works in an up-market art gallery (p.132). He has some dainty sex before formally dumping her as his affair with Christa re-ignites.
  • Delahanty, Weisz’s boss at Reuters Paris bureau (p.27)
  • Geoffrey Sparrow, Oxford friend of Weisz’s (p.41)
  • Olivia, Sparrow’s flirtatious girlfriend (p.43)
  • Edwin Brown, ‘Mr Brown’, an agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service, SIS (p.44).
  • Mr Lane, Brown’s superior in SIS (p.219)
  • Sir Roderick (p.233). We don’t get his last name. Lane refers to him as the head of SIS, also mentioned in previous books.
  • Count Polanyi, well known Hungarian spy (pp.48, 125)
  • Nicholas Morath, his nephew and central character in Kingdom of Shadows (p.125)
  • Lady Angela Hope, the dashing British spy and recruiter who the text goes out of its way to make clear Weisz made love to, very noisily, twice (p.49).
  • Inspector Pompon of the Sûreté National who interviews Weisz in room 10 of the imposing Interior Ministry on the rue des Saussaies (p.63).
  • Inspector Guerin, Pompon’s partner (p.223).
  • Eric Wolf, Reuters man in Berlin, getting married, going on honeymoon in Cornwall for a fortnight, Weisz is sent to Berlin to cover for him (p.70).
  • Christa Zameny, Weisz’s passionate lover, who married German count von Schirren some years before (p.75). When Weisz appears in Berlin they immediately, with barely a word spoken, resume their careers as championship sexual performers, Christa’s panties and bra repeatedly falling to the floor, ‘her breasts shining wet in the light’ (p.85).
  • Gerda, German secretary at Reuters Berlin office.
  • Dr Martz, cheerful Nazi official at the Berlin Press Club.
  • Ian Hamilton, journalist from The Times (p.98) on the short trip to Prague.
  • Prague taxi driver.
  • The two students in Prague.
  • Brasserie Heininger (p.124) the glitzy night-life bar and dance floor which appears in every one of Furst’s novels.
  • Moma Tsipler and his Wienerwald Companions – a Viennese Jazz band who’ve appeared in previous novels and are in residence at the Brasserie Heininger during this one.
  • Louis Fischfang (p.125) film scriptwriter and a lead character in The World At Night and Red Gold.
  • Voyschinkowsky, known as ‘the Lion of the Bourse.’ (p.125)
  • André Szara, protagonist of Furst’s second novel, Dark Star (p.125).
  • Cara Dionello, rich Argentinian, part of the Polanyi party (p.125).
  • King Zog of Albania, in exile in Paris after the Italians seize Albania (p.156)
  • Matteo, printer in Genoa who uses his job as cover to print copies of Liberazione before getting it clandestinely shipped off round Italy.
  • Antonio, truck driver who delivers Liberazione from Genoa to Rapallo
  • Gabriella and Lucia 16-year-old schoolgirls who help distribute Liberazione.
  • Lieutenant DeFranco, detective in the rough waterfront district of Genoa who enjoys reading Liberazione (p.139)
  • Gennaro, transport policeman on the Paris to Genoa train (p.171)
  • Perini, owner of Perini’s barbershop in the rue Mabillon (p.143).
  • Bertrand, loyal old porter at Weisz’s hotel, the Dauphine (p.176).
  • Adolf Hitler, bounding up and down with happiness after signing the Pact of Steel (p.184).
  • Count Ciano, Italian Foreign Minister (p.184).
  • The assistant manager of the Galeries Lafayette, nicknamed ‘the Dragon’ (p.194).
  • Old Madame Gros, secretary at the Galeries Lafayette (p.195).
  • Grassone, ‘fatboy’, huge underworld figure in Genoa (p.253).
  • Emil, slick underworld fixer in Genoa (p.255).
  • ‘The landlord’, owner of the old wine cellar which Weisz can use as a base for the expanded printing of Liberazione (p.263).
  • Pazzo, the local bully boy policeman who tries to arrest Weisz in Genoa (p.265).
  • Angelina, immense woman wearing a hairnet who retaliates against Pazzo and secures Weisz’s freedom (p.266).
  • Father Marco, who gives Weisz sanctuary after Angelina has got him away from the local police (p.267).
  • Nunzio, easy-gong customs officer at Genoa docks.
  • Klemens, former German street fighter now agent for SIS, driver of the car in which Kolb collects Christa and spirits her away from her watchers (p.274).

Nets and webs

The novel is, in other words, populated by an amazingly intricate web of characters who are shown interacting in a multitude of expected or unpredictable ways. For me, Furst’s novels have complexity instead of ‘atmosphere’. It’s the sheer proliferation of characters, with numberless walk-on parts for taxi drivers, bartenders, customs officials and so on, which gives the novels their extraordinary sense of range and their imaginative suasion.

As explained in reviews of his previous novels, I don’t find Furst’s novels particularly thrilling for most of their length – not until the deliberately exciting final chapter or so. For most of their length they consist of accounts of meetings, interviews, rendezvous, the handing over of documents, discussion of secrets, making of arrangements and so on, in offices, street corners and cafés. And the making love.

Fine food They routinely feature rather sumptuous descriptions of meals at fancy restaurants (at the Ritz hotel in Paris, the Adlon in Berlin, the famous Brasserie Heininger) accompanied by fancy cocktails or champagne.

Sex And of course, the novels are laced with descriptions of knowing, sensual sex with one of the hero’s various lovers or mistresses (Marie-Galante in Blood of Victory, Demetria and Maria Sombel in Dark Voyage, and the very sensuous and imaginative Christa von Schirren in this novel). We read descriptions – muted tasteful descriptions – of Weisz having sex with Véronique, with Lady Angela Hope, with Christa, or fantasising about having sex with little Olivia or his Paris landlady.

He knew what she liked, she knew what he liked, so they had a good time. Afterwards, he smoked a Gitane and watched her as she sat at her dressing table, her small breasts rising and falling as she brushed her hair. (p.32)

In Furst’s fiction, you’re never far away from silk bras or panties suavely slipping off smooth flesh.

After a time, she moved her legs apart, and guided his hand, ‘God,’ she said, ‘how I love this.’ He could tell that she did. Sliding down the bed, so that her head was level with his waist, she said, ‘Just stay where you are, there is something I have wanted to do for a long time.’ (p.181)

Good living The fine food, the champagne cocktails, the beautiful women stripping down to their cami-knickers in each novel tend to counter-balance – or even outweigh – the rarer action scenes: the strange men following the hero down a darkened street, the shots from the police as they crash a roadblock, the dive bombers attacking the naval convoy. Much more often you get paragraphs like this:

She stood and took off her jacket and skirt, then her shirt, stockings and suspenders, and folded them over the top of the chaise longue. Usually she wore expensive cotton underwear, white or ivory, and soft to the touch, but tonight she was in a plum-coloured silk, the bra with a lace trim, the panties low at the waist, high at the hip, and tight, a style called, Véronique had once told him, French cut. (p.94)

Sensual and soft More broadly, if something actually violent isn’t happening (which it generally isn’t) Furst’s general purpose setting is noticeably sensual and gentle. It’s not just the sex and fine wine which contributes to the sense of softness about the novels, it’s the default attitude which is – oddly given the subject matter – consistently sweet and gentle.

All his life he’d gazed at rivers, from London’s Thames to Budapest’s Danube, with the Arno, the Tiber and the Grand Canal of Venice in between, but the Seine was queen of the poetic rivers, to Weisz it was. Restless and melancholy, or soft and slow, depending on the mood of the river, or his. That night it was dappled, black with rain and running high in its banks… (p.123)

Very often poetic and wistful:

For a time, Weisz just stood there, alone on the wharf, as the crew disappeared up the flight of stone steps. When they’d gone, it was very quiet, only a buzzing dock light, a cloud of moths fluttering in its metal hood and the lapping of the sea against the quay. The night air was warm, a familiar warmth, soft on the skin, and fragrant with the scents of decay; damp stone and drains, mud flats at low tide.
Weisz had never been here before, but he was home. (p.246)

It is these kind of cadences which give the novels, overall, a dreamy feel which I think explains why the reader is rarely really gripped by the storyline, but is more often absorbed by the endless variety of new characters, interested in the depictions of real historical moments and geopolitical developments – and lulled by the rhythms of much of the prose.

At times this rises to overtly physical descriptions of food or sex but, even in the absence of those obvious highlights, is everywhere characterised by a kind of sweet and gentle sensuality, which helps make the novels such easy, interesting, sexy and rewarding reads.


Credit

The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst was published in 2006 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2007 Phoenix paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe. (390 pages)
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night – A year in the life of French movie producer Jean Casson, commencing on the day the Germans invade in June 1940, following his ineffectual mobilisation into a film unit which almost immediately falls back from the front line, his flight, and return to normality in occupied Paris where he finds himself unwittingly caught between the conflicting claims of the Resistance, British Intelligence and the Gestapo. (304 pages)
1999 Red Gold – Sequel to the World At Night, continuing the adventures of ex-film producer Jean Casson in the underworld of occupied Paris and in various Resistance missions across France. (284 pages)
2000 Kingdom of Shadows – Hungarian exile in Paris, Nicholas Morath, undertakes various undercover missions to Eastern Europe at the bidding of his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, a kind of freelance espionage controller in the Hungarian Legation. Once more there is championship sex, fine restaurants and dinner parties in the civilised West, set against shootouts in forests, beatings by the Romanian police, and fire-fights with Sudeten Germans, in the murky East.
2003 Blood of Victory – Russian émigré writer, Ilya Serebin, gets recruited into a conspiracy to prevent the Nazis getting their hands on Romania’s oil, though it takes a while to realise who’s running the plot – Count Polanyi – and on whose behalf – Britain’s – and what it will consist of – sinking tugs carrying huge turbines at a shallow stretch of the river Danube, thus blocking it to oil traffic. (298 pages)
2004 Dark Voyage – In fact numerous voyages made by the tramp steamer Noordendam and its captain Eric DeHaan, after it is co-opted to carry out covert missions for the Allied cause, covering a period from 30 April to 23 June 1941. Atmospheric and evocative, the best of the last three or four. (309 pages)
2006 The Foreign Correspondent – The adventures of Carlo Weisz, an Italian exile from Mussolini in Paris in 1938 and 1939, as Europe heads towards war. He is a journalist working for Reuters and co-editor of an anti-fascist freesheet, Liberazione, and we see him return from Civil War Spain, resume his love affair with a beautiful German countess in Nazi Berlin, and back in Paris juggle conflicting requests from the French Sûreté and British Secret Intelligence Service, while dodging threats from Mussolini’s secret police.
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

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