Blood of Victory by Alan Furst (2003)

Just outside the railyards of Trieste, the night frozen and black and starless, it turned 1941. The engineer sounded the train whistle, more lost and melancholy than usual, the way Serebin heard it, and Marie-Galante looked at her watch and kissed him. Then they held on to each other for a long time – for hope, for warmth in a cold world, because at least they weren’t alone, and it would have been bad luck not to. (p.101)

Timeframe

This, the seventh in Furst’s series of historical espionage novels, is set in the period from 24 November 1940 to July 1941. So the Second World has been underway for just over a year (since Germany invaded Poland and Britain and France declared war in September 1939). France has fallen (June 1940) and Paris is occupied by the Nazis.

The novel is mostly set in the Balkans and Turkey, where there is concern and tension about how and when the Nazis will invade Eastern Europe. In particular it focuses on Romania, troubled by fascist politics, street fighting and location of vital oil fields.

To add to the sense of tension and unease generated by the setting and plot, Furst uses the technique of giving a date stamp to every section, sometimes specifying the precise time of day, to convey the speed of events – a common enough technique used in thousands of thrillers and movies.

Boobs and boulevards

Russian émigré writer, Ilya Serebin, is on a Bulgarian freighter chuntering across the Black Sea towards Istanbul. Serebin has seduced the wife of one of the other passengers on the freighter – Marie-Galante Labonniere – and the first page of the novel describes them lying in bed naked, his finger running up and down her back which feels ‘smooth as silk’. This ambience, of warm naked female flesh, drenches the whole book, which continually refers to men’s lovers and mistresses, takes us to brothels and introduces us to sensual prostitutes. In this respect, the novel has the relaxed ambience of a soft porn fantasy.

Serebin was a man who had love affairs, one followed another. It was his fate… (p.4)

Furst’s first three novels are extraordinarily powerful depictions of the violent, claustrophobic and terrifyingly politicised atmosphere of Eastern Europe and Russia in the late 1930s. However, by book number four, a lot of this imaginative charge had disappeared and the novels’ focus seemed to have switched to Paris and to have become more about boulevards and cafés, fine restaurants and bars, exquisite meals and beautiful bare-bosomed women.

So although this seventh novel takes us to other locations (Istanbul, Bucharest), its heart is always in the city of light, where Serebin has his apartment, from which he departs to go on ‘missions’ but to which he always safely returns, to his bed and to the latest sensuously nubile woman. We are never far away, in these later books, from a boulevard or bare breasts.

When I finished jotting the paragraph above, I returned to reading the book and read, in quick succession:

  • On a sign above the door, a naked wench sat cross-legged in the curve of a quarter moon, smiling down on a street of bars and women in doorways. (p.151)
  • Beneath the window, an ancient radiator hissed and banged, warming the room to a point where they could walk around in their underwear. ‘Your best?’ Serebin said. Her bra and panties were ivory silk, snug and expensive-looking, that favoured the warm colour of her skin. (p.152)
  • He moved so that his lips were on her shoulder. She put her hand on the back of his neck and, very gently, began to comb his hair up with her fingers. (p.154)
  • Serebin spent half an hour on deck, then returned to the cabin. Marie-Galante was seated at the dressing table, putting on lipstick. She wore a slip and stockings, a towel wrapped around her hair. (p.158)

Later on, we have barely met Jamie Carr, a British diplomat based in Bucharest, before we are told that he is on Girlfriend Number Three, ‘a tall Polish nightclub dancer with pencilled eyebrows’ (p.198). He’s packing up his diplomatic records before pulling out of the city in expectation of the looming civil war. As he leafs through the documents, the first to come to  hand is his notes about Zizi Lambrino, King Carol’s mistress (p.199).

My point is that, in many of these situations, on first meeting many of these characters, the first thought is almost always about their lovers, mistresses, whores and concubines. About sex.

Blood of Victory sounds like the macho title of one of my son’s hyper-violent computer games and, I presume, refers to the oil which is at the heart of the book’s plot, though we never actually see any. But given the prevalence of half-naked women in hotel rooms, the book should more accurately be titled something like The silk stockings of victory or The wine and women of victory.

The plot

Russian émigré writer Ilya Serebin is old enough to have lived through the Revolution, the Civil War and have escaped the Bolsheviks to Paris. He has a wife, Tamara Petrovna, but years ago she fell victim to tuberculosis and Serebin set her up in a house not far from Istanbul. Visiting her is part of the reason for his current trip, across Europe to the Black Sea and now by ship to Istanbul.

Istanbul

In Istanbul Serebin meets other Russian émigrés at the International Russian Union (IRU) offices and café. They lament the war, the Nazi incursions into the Balkans, the Turks’ fears that they’ll be next to be attacked. The Russians reminisce about the old country and the immense violence of revolution and civil war into which friends and family vanished.

Serebin pays a visit to Serge Kubalsky. He invites him to a party for old Goldbark, a veteran exile. Barely have drinks started flowing and arguments beginning, when a bomb goes off, eviscerating Goldbark and killing several others. It is not clear to this reader why, unless a petty act of revenge by Soviet security agents.

Serebin is interviewed by Turkish police but knows nothing about it. Later, sitting in a cafe, he’s given a hand-written note asking him to meet Kubalsky at a cinema that evening. He goes but K is nowhere to be seen. Instead, a fat man scuffles down the aisle being pursued by two others, who run through the Exit door and there’s the sound of pistols firing. Serebin tentatively follows them but there’s no body, no blood. The book is full of non-sequiturs and puzzles like this. Dead ends. Obliquities.

Serebin is invited to a famous brothel in whose sleazy ambience he meets a man named Bastien, who immediately reveals that his name is Janos Polyani, also known as von Polyani de Nemeszvar.

a) We’ve met Polyani in the previous novel, Kingdom of Shadows where we learned that he is an agent of Hungarian intelligence.
b) He appears to very obliquely recruit Serebin to spy for Britain. Over succeeding chapters we learn that Polyani is trying to drum up ideas for some way of preventing oil from Romania fuelling the Nazi war machine ie being transported to Germany. He has no fixed plan – in fact is open to all suggestions – and asks Serebin if he will undertake to track down a millionaire crook and fixer known as Ivan Kostyka, who is known to have an extensive network of agents in Romania.

Serebin takes the Orient Express back to Paris and his cosy flat. He visits the IRU office in Paris, base for the émigré literary magazine, The Harvest, with its editor Boris Uhlzen. He asks Boris if he knows the whereabouts of the notorious Ivan Kostyka. Switzerland, apparently.

Serebin goes by train to Switzerland and meets squat, 70-year-old crook and fixer Kostyka in the Hotel Helvetia in St Moritz, along with his chunky 40-something mistress. (All the men in these novels move in an ambience of mistresses, lovers, prostitutes and easily available women.) Kostyka agrees to come in on the plan and gives Serebin a list of his contacts – his intelligence apparat – in Romania, over 100 names and descriptions.

So Serebin and his lover Marie-Galante set off for Bucharest, the capital of Romania. Here they make love a lot in their hotel room and, in between times, look up contacts on Kosyka’s list, with varied results. A few agree to help. The best result is a Jewish contact gives them a copy of a comprehensive report on the Romanian oilfields prepared for the British General Staff after the last war.

In a horse-drawn taxi on the way back from a typically stylish restaurant meal in Bucharest, Serebin and Marie-Galante get caught up in some of the street fighting and find themselves being robbed at gunpoint by the thugs of the fascist Iron Guard. Lucky not to have been shot on the spot.

This, like so many other scenes in the novel, is sort of scary but also strangely detached. The whole thing has a strange, dreamlike ambience, as the main characters drifts from city to city, from restaurant to bar to cafe, making love at regular intervals, holding oblique conversations with various strangers – even when fighting breaks out on the snowy streets of Bucharest, it all seems strangely inconsequential.

Serebin and Marie-Galante travel to Constanta in Romania. Then by boat back to Istanbul. There’s an onboard conference with a few other agents, where they share their findings. On this boat trip Polanyi tells him that Marie-Galante’s husband has a new diplomatic posting, and that she must go to be at his side, not least because the husband is also an agent working for Polanyi.

Paris

Back to Paris where Serebin shares after hours food with the chef of the Brasserie Heininger, the ‘legendary’ Paris cafe which features in all of Furst’s novels. Among the small guest list of impoverished exiles is the poet Anya Zak. She invites Serebin back to her tiny garret flat, reads him a poem and makes it plain she is sexually available. Tempted, he has the discipline to say no and go back to his own little apartment.

There are more incidents in Paris. Polanyi and other contacts discuss information about the Danube, the long river up which Romanian oil is transported into Germany. How can they stop it? Could the Danube be blocked? Serebin discusses it with an exiled Romanian riverboat pilot in Marseilles. Experts in Birmingham are consulted. Slowly a plan crystallises and Serebin is finally told about it by a newish arrival in the team, one Mr Stephens, a fair-haired Brit of 35.

Serebin works daily at the offices of the emigre magazine The Harvest. It is here that people know to contact him. Surprisingly he gets a call from Serge – last seen running out a cinema pursued by men with guns. When he meets Serebin he explains that ‘they’ (probably the NKVD) tried to bump him off at the cinema but he escaped and has been on the run round Europe. Serebin wishes him well.

A new character named Jean Marc invites him to a bar in a remote working class arrondissement and, after getting our man thoroughly drunk, leaves while Serebin is in the loo. When Serebin staggers out into the street, he realises he is being tailed by two Arab toughs who he begins to think are going to attack him. Tension – until Serebin comes across a whore in a doorway, makes a bit of a fuss negotiating a price, which brings her pimp into the open and the assassins – if that’s what they are – confronted by too many witnesses, slowly withdraw, grinning. Threat over. For the present…

Out of the blue he gets a phone call from Marie-Galante – she has two days leave in Paris and spends them sleeping with him.

She wriggled briefly beneath the covers and gave him a garter belt… She unhooked her bra, put it on his lap with everything else, then slid her panties off… (p.224)

By now Serebin has been told his role in the project, which Polanyi has christened Operation Medallion. Serebin is to pose as the representative of a Romanian company which has placed an order for four or five enormous metal furnaces. He will accompany these as they are towed by tug down the Danube to the narrowest, shallowest part of the river, where they will ‘accidentally’ sink – thus blocking the supply of Romanian oil.

Only a few days before the departure date for Bucharest, Serebin enters his cheap Paris hotel in the usual way, only for the desk clerk to warn that ‘they’ are upstairs, searching his room. Not entirely sure who ‘they’ are, nonetheless Serebin leaves by a back entrance and goes to the apartment of Anya, the fat poetess who made herself ‘available’ earlier in the story. She makes a few attempts on his virtue, then gives up, and simply lets him stay.

Belgrade

Cut to Belgrade where Serebin meets a couple of happy-go-lucky Serbian officers, who enjoy wine and women and hold a little party for him. Next evening they drive a lorry down to the docks, and surreptitiously unload land mines into each of the five barges which are carrying the huge turbines down the Danube. The Serbs fix one per barge, in a booby-trap so that Serebin only has to open the hatch to any of the tugs, and the mine will go off – then wish him good luck and drive off.

Journey down the Danube

Plenty of atmosphere and Serebin gets on well with the colourful characters of the two barge owners as they cruise down the great river. But they are pulled over by a Romanian river patrol which insists they sail into a side canal off the main river channel. As the tug couple are taken off to be questioned, Serebin realises his cover story won’t stand up to scrutiny and decides to blow up the tugs. There’s an exciting shoot-out during which Serebini blows up at least two of them, shoots out the searchlight of the river patrol (it’s all happening at night), before escaping into the wooded hills above the river.

This section of the novel is genuinely gripping and exciting. Serebin spends several days on the run, pursued through woods and tiny peasant villages, hiding out during the day, sneaking along beside the river at night. Finally, he arrives at the planned rendezvous with his control, Marrano.

He explains the mission has essentially failed, they pile into the getaway car, and drive off along the narrow Széghéni road, carved into the virgin rock face in a torrential downpour, itself quite a hair-raising experience – until they are stopped at a police roadblock. On impulse Marrano decides to ram it, and they get a bit of a head start but are soon being pursued by a police car taking pot shots at them and catching up fast. Marrano deliberately drives over the edge of a cliff, the car dropping to the forest below, crashing through branches of dense pine forest, before crashing to a halt on the ground beneath.

Well, they’ve certainly given themselves time, as the police car up on the road stops and flashes torches down into the forest. But they are both injured. Serebini pulls Marrano free of the wreckage, drags him down to the river and somehow gets them onto one of the many logs piled up against the shore. He has just enough energy to kick the log free of the jam and out into the river flow, and so that it slowly floats along with the current, downriver in the dark, leaving the soldier search party far behind them.

Happy ending

Cut to a hotel room in Belgrade. Serebin and Marrano were found and rescued and smuggled back into Serbia. After being patched up, Serebin returns to the hotel room which he left just a few short days before, to find the two larky Serbian officers in the middle of an orgy with three beautiful girls.

The air was thick with black tobacco and White Gardenia, the bed occupied by three young women, one very young, all of them striking in different ways. Mysterious, Milkmaid and Ballerina, he named them… ‘Hello,’ she said, rather formally, and, in an afterthought, pulled the sheet up over her bare breasts. (p.282)

In Furst, you are never far from lovely young breasts.

Three months later. July 1941. Kostanyi is being celebrated at a dinner in London for his anti-Nazi efforts. And Serebin has made it safely to Istanbul and then onto the remote house he bought for his wife (who has conveniently died) and where he has now installed himself with his lover, Marie-Galante.

Back to bed

The novel ends with the writer staring thoughtfully out over the Bosphorus at dusk, then climbing into bed next to the naked form of the fragrant Marie-Galante, deliberately mirroring the scene on the first page.

And what should have been a tragedy, in terms of mission failure (the Germans continue to transport as much Romanian oil as they want up the Danube) with upsetting collateral damage (what happened to the poor Danube barge couple?) and the German invasion of Yugoslavia, which will sweep away all his brave Serbian friends — has turned into what feels like an undergraduate jaunt with a happy ending, then onto sensual sex with a gorgeous babe, smoochily pushing her bare bottom back against him, ‘her skin silky and cool, even on a hot summer night’ (p.289). Hooray.


Repeats

Furst enjoys repeating the same characters or settings in different novels.

  • We first met Janos Polanyi, the chief instigator of the plot, in the previous novel, The Kingdom of Shadows.
  • Lady Angela Hope is mentioned, an Englishwoman we’ve meet in earlier novels, who recruits for MI6, sometimes sleeping with the more attractive prospects to persuade them to join the Allied cause.
  • The Zebra Girls are a troupe of women entertainers who we’ve met in previous novels, who perform in nightclubs, wearing only zebra masks and shoes, the rest utterly naked. In this novel they perform at the Tic Tac club in Bucharest.
  • The Café Heininger is the setting for a famous shootout in the first book, and appears in every single one of Furst’s 14 novels.

The recurrence of some characters in the early, genuinely scary and threatening novels about the KGB and its murderous activities in Eastern Europe (and Civil War Spain) added to the sense of menace, the sense of a web of spies and assassins across Europe who the characters couldn’t escape, which made those novels so dark and haunting.

But as the series has gone on the novels have become softer and more sensual, with a lot more descriptions of fine food and ladies in stockings – the recurrence of minor characters has begun to have the opposite effect, and made the series seem more cartoony, somehow less and less serious. The recurrence of the Café Heininger has become an in-joke, like something in an episode of The Simpsons.


Credit

Blood of Victory by Alan Furst was published in 2002 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2003 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.
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
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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