Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum (2003)

I went back to my apartment from which no policeman could evict me now. There was no one home, and finally I was able to weep freely. To weep for my husband, who perished in the cellars of the Lubyanka, when he was thirty-seven years old, at the height of his powers and talent; for my children, who grew up orphans, stigmatised as the children of enemies of the people; for my parents, who died of grief; for Nikolai, who was tortured in the camps; and for all of my friends who never lived to be rehabilitated but lie beneath the frozen earth of Kolyma.
(Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, labour economist, arrested in 1936, released in 1954, describing her formal exoneration in 1956, quoted on page 461)

Applebaum is not just a leading researcher and scholar of 20th century Russian history, she is also a senior journalist, having worked for The Economist, The Spectator and The Washington Post. This explains much of the power of this book. Of course the subject matter is horrifying, but Applebaum also knows how to tell a good story, to explain complex issues, and to put the key points clearly and forcefully.

Her terrifying history of the Soviet system of prison labour camps, or ‘gulags’, is in three parts: part one the rise from 1917 to 1939 – then part two, 250 pages describing in eye-watering detail the horrifically barbarous reality of ‘life’ in the camps – then part three, describing the further rise of the gulag system after the Second World War, before its long, slow decline after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Key learnings

Big Russia is the largest country in the world, spanning 12 time zones. Most of the east, especially the north east, is uninhabited frozen tundra. The Tsars had a long history of not only locking up political opponents but sending them into exile at remote settlements, far, far from the key cities of the West, Moscow and St Petersburg. I.e. the communists were building on an already well-established Russian tradition.

Empty Moreover, there was a long-established tradition of trying to populate the vast open spaces of continental Russia. Catherine the Great was concerned all her reign with this ambition, and it is described as a key aspect of domestic policy in Dominic Lieven’s history of Russia before the Great War, Towards The Flame.

Forced labour Russia also had a well-established tradition of using forced serf labour to build grandiose projects. The most famous was Peter the Great’s creation of St Petersburg out of a swamp, using vast numbers of forced peasant labour. Everyone remembers Peter the Great – tourists ooh and aah over the beautiful boulevards. No one remembers the hundreds of thousands of forced labourers who worked and died in squalid conditions to build it.

Thus, the idea of setting up prison camps far away from the main cities, in the remotest distant parts of Russia, with a view to a) settling them b) developing untapped mineral wealth, had ample precedents in Tsarist practice. But the communists took it to a whole new level.

GULAG is an acronym standing for Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerej or Main Camps’ Administration. I was struck by the hideous coincidence that the Russians used the same term as the Nazis (and which therefore appears in so much Holocaust literature such as Primo Levi), Lager. Hence its abbreviated appearance as the suffix of numerous specific camps: Dallag, Dmitlag, Lokchimlag, Vishlag, Sevvostlag.

Concentration camp Applebaum gives a brief history of the term ‘concentration camp’ which I thought was invented by the British during the Boer War, but apparently was coined by the Spanish. In 1895 they began a policy of reconcentracion to remove peasants from the land and concentrate them in camps, so as to annihilate the troublesome Cuban independence movement (p.19) – a practice copied by the British against the Boers in South Africa, the Germans against the Herero tribespeople in South-West Africa, and more or less every other colonial nation, at some point.

She defines a concentration camp as a prison camp where people are put not for specific crimes they’ve committed but for who they are. ‘Enemy of the people’, ‘saboteur’, ‘traitor’, these terms meant more or less anything the authorities wanted them to.

People at the time, in Russia and abroad, thought there was some vestige of ‘justice’ in the system i.e. that people were imprisoned because they had done something ‘wrong’. It took many a long time to grasp that ‘revolutionary justice’ wasn’t concerned with individuals but, like everything else in a centrally managed state, ran on a quota system. A certain number of traitors needed to be rounded up each year, targets were set, so ‘traitors’ were found and arrested.

Once the Soviet authorities had established complete freedom to arrest and sentence whoever they wanted, they could also use the system for practical ends. When the state needed engineers and geologists to help map out the vast projects to be built by forced labour, such as the White Sea Canal – they simply arrested and imprisoned leading geologists and engineers. ‘Recruitment by arrest’. Simple as that.

Camp life I was tempted to skip the central section about life in the camp but it in fact turned out to be absolutely riveting, much more interesting than the factual history. Applebaum has personally interviewed scores of survivors of the camps, and weaves this testimony in with selections from the hundreds of Gulag memoirs to give a fascinating social history of all aspects of camp life, beginning with the experience of arrest, imprisonment and the invariably nightmare experience of train shipment thousands of miles.

Of the first 16,000 prisoners entrained right across continental Russia to Vladivostock then piled into completely unprepared cargo ships to be sent to Magadan, the wretched port which was the jumping off point for the bitter and fatal Kolyma mining area in the far north-east of Russia, only 10,000 made it to Magada, and half of them were dead within the first year of labour.

The nature of the ‘work’ in the camps, the special destinies of women and children, the nature of death – including suicides – methods of escape and, above all, the multifarious strategies of survival prisoners adopted, are all described in fascinating and appalling detail.

Memoirists The two top Gulag memoirists are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago) and Varlaam Shalamov (The Kolyma Tales), though we also hear a lot from Alexander Dolgun, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Leonid Finkelstein and Lev Razgon,

Russia

The net effect of the book is to make me fear and dislike Russia even more.

The failure of state planned economies State-controlled communism never did or could work. No matter what the rhetoric emitted by its propaganda departments and foreign fans, the Soviet system amounted to a vast bureaucracy of central planners laying down impossible targets for every aspect of economic production and a) they didn’t know what they were talking about b) they were under pressure from the dictators at the top to perform miracles c) so they set impossible quotas.

Then middle and lower management had to find ways of achieving these impossible targets or, more likely, faking the results. The result was vast piles of long, detailed reports, packed with glowing statistics, which were quoted in all the press and propaganda channels, while the society itself got poorer and poorer, in many places starved, and there were shortages of everything.

In this respect the Gulags were simply a microcosm of wider Soviet society. They were as slipshod, ramshackle, dirty, badly and cruelly run, as the rest of Soviet society.

Quotas The entire system didn’t run on flexible responses to changing needs and situations. Instead bureaucrats at the centre set quotas. You either exceeded your quota and got a reward, reached the quota and were judged satisfactory, or failed the quota and were sacked. Nobody assessed production on the basis of what society actually needed. The central assumption of a communist society is that the Bureaucracy knows what society needs, knows what is good for it. Thus from 1929 onwards Stalin decided that what Russia needed was mass industrialisation. Factories, canals, railways were prioritised; consumer goods, decent accommodation, even food itself, less of a priority.

Because the quotas were so unrealistic, often the only way to fulfil them was to drastically compromise on quality and cut every available corner. Hence to this day Russia’s rotting infrastructure, built in a hurry by people lying and cheating about quality and design and durability, at every opportunity.

The Gulag So this was the mismanaged society of which the Gulags were simply a vicious microcism. At any one moment the population of the Gulags hovered around 2 million. The majority of the population was common criminals – so-called ‘politicals’, the kind of people we in the West used to campaign about, were always in a minority. The kind of people literate enough to write memoirs were in a tiny minority.

From the start Applebaum describes how the system of labour camps began immediately the Bolsheviks took power, as a result of the Red Terror of 1918, but that for most of the 1920s there were clashing priorities. In line with the early idealism of the Revolution many policy makers, bureaucrats and camp commanders thought the camps main purpose was to re-educate ordinary and political criminals in order to turn them into ideal Soviet citizens and rehabilitate them into the Model Society.

It was as late as 1939, when Lavrentia Beria became head of the NKVD, that he for the first time established a thorough-going and consistent policy: the forced labour camps existed to contribute to the Soviet economy, end of. Production output was all that mattered. He instituted systematic reform: Quotas were raised, inspections became more rigorous, sentences were extended, the slave labour day became longer.

Stupid projects The White Sea Canal was the first massive prestige project undertaken with forced camp labour. The Bolsheviks thought it would show the world the dynamism of their new kind of society but instead it demonstrated the absurd stupidity of Soviet aims and methods. Stalin wanted to achieve what previous Russian rulers had dreamed of doing, opening a waterway from the Arctic to the Baltic, thus allowing goods to be transported to from anywhere along the immense Arctic Coast to Archangel, from where it would be dispatched along the new canal to Petersburg, and so into the Baltic and to market in Europe. Applebaum details the ridiculous way the impatient builders began excavations without proper maps, or full architects’ plans, but above all, with slave labourers equipped with no modern tools.

There were no mechanical tools or machines whatsoever, no diggers or drills or trucks, nothing. The entire thing had to be built by hand with tools and equipment built by hand by slave labourers barely surviving on thin soup and sawdust bread in sub-zero temperatures.

Anything up to a quarter of a million prisoners are thought to have died during the canal’s construction. In the event – because of the lack of machine tools and the extreme rockiness of the terrain – a decision was taken early on to limit the depth of the canal to the depth required for river boats but not deep enough for sea ships. This fateful decision ensured that the canal was never successful. It’s still open and carries between ten and forty shallow-draft ships per day, fewer than the number of pleasure steamers on the Thames.

The White Sea Canal was the first of countless similarly grandiose schemes trumpeted with high hopes in the state-controlled press, which relied on slave labour to be built, and which were failures at every level, due to catastrophically bad planning, bad implementation, bad management, bad materials, bad equipment and, above all, the terrible morale of slave labourers who did everything conceivable to cut corners and work as little as possible, simply to survive on the starvation rations which barely kept them alive, let alone fuelled them for hard heavy labour.

The book gives far-reaching insights into this mindset, which has tended to afflict all subsequent ‘socialist’ governments throughout the world, making them hurry to show the world how fabulous their economic system is by building grandiose vanity projects, cities in the middle of nowhere, airports nobody uses, dams which silt up – which plagued the Third World for generations after the Second World War. There is something incredibly childish about it all.

Crime and punishment The intellectuals, especially True Believers in Communism, those who really thought they were building a better society, suffered most after arrest and imprisonment. They still thought life had some kind of meaning, that there is some kind of justice in human life. They wrote long letters to the head of the NKVD, the Politburo, to Stalin himself, arguing that there must have been a mistake.

But there was no mistake. Or rather the mistake was theirs in naively thinking that Soviet society was governed by any rational sense of ‘justice’. As the communist state’s grand plans failed one after another, the paranoid imbeciles at the top concluded it couldn’t possibly be their stupid economic theories which were at fault – the only explanation must be that there were vast networks of spies and saboteurs and ‘right-deviationists’ and Trotskyists undermining the glorious communist achievement at every step.

Thus when people began starving to death in the hundreds of thousands due to the villainously stupid decision to collectivise agriculture in the Ukraine and south Russia in the early 1930s, the centre couldn’t admit this was because the entire idea was cretinously self-defeating, but instead issues ‘quotas’ of saboteurs which local authorities must arrest.

Because The Quota was all that mattered, police and NKVD would just go to the villages concerned and arrest everyone they saw, women and children and babies included, until the quota was fulfilled. Job done. If the famine continued, it was obviously because the quota hadn’t been enough. So arrest more.

This is how the Gulag filled up and explains why it was a) always bursting at the seams, with camp bosses continually complaining to the centre about lack of room, food and facilities b) was always more full of peasants and working class than the small number of ‘politicals’, and c) why so many of them died.

They were rarely ‘extermination camps’ like the Nazi death camps of the same period – people died because of the criminal squalor, dirt, disease, lack of food or water or medical facilities. Over and over again Applebaum quotes prisoners’ descriptions of 40 people packed into rooms designed for five, of nowhere to sleep, no water except the snow which you had to melt yourself, no mugs or plates so water had to be scooped up in bark or rags, no spoons to eat the watery soup filled with rotten vegetables. Cannibalism – which became widespread in the Ukraine famine of 1933 – was also not unknown in the camps.

Over and again, trainloads of prisoners arrived in locations ordained to become camps to find nothing, absolutely nothing at all. Hundreds of thousands of city dwellers were dumped in frozen fields or bare tundra. They had to excavate holes in the ground with their bare hands and huddle together for warmth for the first few weeks. Immediately, the weak started dying. Only the strong survived the weeks necessary to chop down trees and assemble basic shelters from logs, and so on.

It is a picture of unrelieved squalor, poverty, stupidity, cruelty, degradation and inhumanity.

The purges By the mid-1930s Stalin felt secure enough in his control of the Soviet state to turn on his enemies and anyone from the early days of the Bolshevik party. It began with targeted arrests, torture, execution or dispatch to the camps, but became a wave of persecution and just kept on growing throughout 1937 and 1938. This was the era of the Show Trials which stunned the world and much of the Soviet population, seeing heroes of the Revolution stand up in court and confess to the most absurd crimes (a process described in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon).

However, although this wave of arrests is famous in the West, it’s partly because it affected high-profile people and intellectuals and, as Applebaum shows, these always made up a tiny fraction of the Gulag population. In 1938 it was estimated that only 1.1% of prisoners had a higher education. Half had only a primary school education, about a third were semi-literate (p.270).

And contrary to common belief, it wasn’t during this period, in the 1930s, that the Gulag Archipelago hit maximum size. That happened after the war – 1952 appears to have been the peak year, with a prison population of some 4 million.

Women and children Anyone with a heart will find it difficult to carry on reading after the chapter describing the plight of women and their children in the camps. It goes without saying that rape, sometimes gang rape, was a permanent threat to all female prisoners. Applebaum describes how initially idealistic women soon had to adapt to life among hardened criminals, quickly becoming mistress or moll to some hard man. There’s a particularly grim account of how a sweet, pretty blonde turned into, first a mistress, and then herself rose through unflinching cruelty to become a powerful camp boss.

The hardest stories are the countless times new-born babies were separated from their mothers as soon as they’d been weaned – not only that but were then indoctrinated in state-run nurseries into believing their mothers were ‘enemies of the people’ so that, even if the mothers ever managed to track down their children, it was to find Party zealots who refused to acknowledge or talk to them.

How could a nation, how could a people, how could so many people behave with such utter heartlessness?

Such were new Soviet Man and Woman, products of a system devised to bring heartless cruelty to a peak of perfection.

Crime Paradoxically, the group which thrived most in the Gulag was the really hardened criminals. There was, and still is, an elaborate hierarchy of Russian criminals. At the top sit the vor v zakone (literally ‘thieves-in-law), the toughest of the tough, convicted multiple offenders, who lived by a very strict code of honour, first rule of which was ‘Never co-operate with the authorities’.

Applebaum’s section about these super-hard criminals is fascinating, as all depictions of criminal life are, not least for the light it sheds on post-communist Russia where large numbers of hardened criminals moved into the vacuum created by the fall of communism, and remain there to this day.

Orphans There’s also some discussion of the huge number of orphans which were produced by the State breaking up millions of families during the 1920s and 1930s. These homeless kids took to street life, stealing, pimping, dealing drugs, became the petty criminals who graduated into Russia’s big criminal underclass. At numerous points the authorities realised the problems this was causing and tried out various policies to abolish it. Too late.

I’ve been reading Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant thrillers about communist and post-communist Russia featuring tough guy investigator Arkady Renko, and the later ones give quite a lot of prominence to a street kid he picks up and tries to give a decent home, named Zhenya. The novel Three Stations, in particular, introduces us to the dangerous gangs of street kids who Zhenya associates with and/or avoids. It was a revelation to learn that this problem – Russian cities thronged with gangs of criminal homeless kids – is as old as the Revolution, and was partly caused by it.

How many

A best guess is that some 18 million Soviet citizens passed through the Gulag system between 1929 and 1953. Over 4 million German and other nation prisoners of war were held in camps during and for some time after the Second World War. An additional 700,000 Soviet citizens, many Red Army soldiers returning from incarceration in Germany, were held in so-called ‘filtration camps’. And a huge number of citizens underwent internal exile, were removed to distant lands, though not kept in official gulags: for example, over 2 million kulaks were sent into internal exile in the early 1930s alone. The best estimate is that there were around 6 million special exiles.

Added up, the total number of forced labourers during the history of the gulags is around 28 million.

Conclusions

Applebaum’s book is not only extraordinarily thorough, deeply researched and beautifully written, but it organises its subject matter with immaculate clarity and logic.

The division of the book into three parts – pre-war, life in the camps, post-war – works perfectly, as the social and political and economic circumstances of each era differed so much, particularly in part three when the death of Stalin (in 1953) prompted a quick but chaotic ‘thaw’ in the administration of Soviet ‘justice’ and the swift release of hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

She is excellent at explaining the various methodological issues which confront the historian of this subject e.g. central and local archives contain thousands of official statistics and inspectors’ reports about the hundreds and hundreds of camps, but almost all of them contain substantial fictions and exaggerations – no numbers anywhere, about anything, from the Soviet period can be trusted.

She thoroughly explains the problem of simply trying to define the gulags, since camps came into existence for ad hoc project purposes, or changed function from forced labour camps to normal prisons, and back again, and so on.

Similarly, there are big problems defining the different categories of inmate – political, criminal, foreign – which the Soviet authorities themselves changed and redefined. And that’s before the Second World War, when the entire picture was further confused by the influx of huge numbers of prisoners of war, by the German seizure of most of European Russia and the collapse of production which led – once again – to widespread famine. And then, after the war, the forced relocations of entire nations moved at Stalin’s whim thousands of miles from their homelands, like the Crimean Tartars or the Chechens.

It is an epic story, involving not just every stratum of Russian society but victims from the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine, along with entire populations of Crimean Tartars, Chechens and so on.

Stepping back it is like watching a huge ink blot spread over the map of the world from Petersburg to Moscow and all European Russia, then slowly across the Asian landmass and, after the Second War, well into Europe and then bursting into the huge area of China, before breaking out in various Third World countries across Africa, Asia and South America. What a global disaster!

The downside of the book is having to nerve yourself to read so many horror stories, whether at national local or individual level, the mental damage caused by immersing yourself in cruelty and heartlessness and suffering and death on a Biblical scale.

The upside is the astonishing clarity with which Applebaum defines the issues, presents the evidence, makes her decisions, divides the subject logically and then describes it in prose of inspirational clarity and intelligence. The book itself is a triumph of civilisation and intelligence over the crude barbarity of the subject matter.

In the final section Applebaum points out the effect on contemporary Russia of never facing up to the enormous crimes and injustices of the Soviet past. Briefly aired in the 1990s it has now been resolutely forgotten, with the result that some of the political figures involved in the final stages of the prison system in the 1970s and 1980s continued to hold positions of power and were never prosecuted. The FSB, successor to the KGB, still has rights to intercept mail and phone calls. And ideas of free speech and freedom of the press continue to be much more limited in Russia than in the West (and appear to deteriorate with every passing year).

Lots of cogent reasons why, as I said at the top, the book makes me fear and dislike Russia even more than I already did. It’s 15 years since Gulag was published. Political and social conditions under Vladimir Putin’s semi-permanent rule have not improved. I wonder if we will end up going to war with Russia.

Applebaum quotes the Russian philosopher Pyotr Chadev, who returned to St Petersburg from the West in 1836 and wrote an essay which included the sentence:

Contrary to the laws of the humanity Russia moves only in the direction of her own enslavement and the enslavement of all neighbouring peoples.

Tsar Nicholas I had Chadev placed under house arrest and word put around that he was insane. Plus ca change…

Summary

This is a really excellent history book, one which – as they say – everyone should read. Or, maybe more realistically, should be compulsory reading to anyone harbouring nostalgia for communism as a form of government or economic theory.

Or – as she says in her conclusion – should be compulsory reading for all those who are beginning to think that the Cold War was a futile waste of time.

Her book goes a long way to justifying the description of the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. In the pampered West plenty of academic may poo-poo that idea – but ask the Czechs, the Poles, the East Germans, the Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Estonians, Latvians, the Lithuanians, or the Crimeans or the Chechens how much they enjoyed living under Soviet rule.

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History

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Camp memoirs

Fiction

Women artists in the 20th and 21st century ed. Uta Grosenick (2003)

Taschen is an art book publisher founded in 1980 by Benedikt Taschen in Cologne, Germany. They specialise in publishing art books about less well-covered topics including queer, fetish and erotic art. This relatively small-format (15.3 x 20 cm), high-gloss art book does what it says on the tin and features four-page spreads on 46 women artists of the 20th and 21st centuries – each gets two pages of text about them facing two pages of representative images, whether paintings, sculptures, photos of installations or performances etc.

German

The text is sourced from a range of experts on the various artists, but they and the introduction by Ute Grosenick, are all translated from the German. The resulting prose often feels heavy, in fact is sometimes incomprehensible – and is not helped by the liberal use of the kind of artbollocks which is required to explain and make sense of most of the artists from the 1960s onwards.

Wordy yet uninformative

Here’s the opening of the article about Andrea Zittel.

An inundation of stimuli and pressure to consume are two of the operative terms continually used with regard to the influence of mass culture on the individual. The former supposedly leads to distraction and nervous overloading, the latter to an awakening of futile needs, prestige thinking, and meaningless superficiality. Andreas Zittel’s blithe ‘applied art’, at first glance ascetic but in fact quite sensuous, can be interpreted against the background of this discussion. She stands, as it were, on the other shore and her mundane ‘art world’ lacks every form of moralising attack, overhasty critique, or complaining cultural pessimism. Rather, the lifestyle she offers is rife with both pragmatic and utopian aspects, and upholds the dignity of the individual within mass culture without losing sight of the factor of desire. (p.186)

On the basis of this passage what do you think Zittel’s art consists of or looks like? Would you expect to see paintings, installations, sculptures, film or video?

For me the key word in this verbose, pseudo-intellectual but strangely prim (‘with regard to’) and ultimately uninformative style is ‘supposedly’. The use of this word in the second sentence undermines the whole of the remainder of the paragraph. It indicates that the writer (Raimar Stange) is hedging their bets. Mass culture and consumer culture ‘supposedly’ lead to nervous overload and superficiality.

Stange invokes these concepts (which are key to understanding Zittel’s resistance to them) but is anxious to emphasise that she is not so naive as to actually ‘believe’ in them. No, the use of ‘supposedly’ indicates that she is dealing with ideas which may satisfy the mainstream media and uneducated plebs, but that you and I – who have read our Foucault and Lacan and Barthes and Derrida and Deleuze (heavily referenced in her text) always use with forceps (even if we are forced by the demands of publishing and writing for morons) to base our entire analysis of a living artist on them.

She wants to use pretty straightforward banal truisms of our time to explain Zittel’s work – but she is painfully aware that the ideas she’s invoking are, well, pretty commonplace, and so writes supposedly just to let us know that she’s cleverer than that. She’s having her cake and eating it.

(If you want to understand what Zittel’s very distinctive ‘art’ is like and how it ‘lacks every form of moralising attack, overhasty critique, or complaining cultural pessimism [but ] rather …. offers a lifestyle rife with both pragmatic and utopian aspects, and upholds the dignity of the individual within mass culture without losing sight of the factor of desire’ check out her Wikipedia page, where you will discover that some of those descriptions are actually very accurate – once her project has actually been explained a bit.)

Clichés

Alternatively, the writers resort to clichés and truisms. Admittedly, writing about art is difficult. Having read all the introductions and all the wall labels for over 100 exhibitions over the past five years I am all-too-aware of how you have to say something, and so there is a terrible temptation to just fill up the space with plausible-sounding padding. Still, there’s no excuse for just writing empty clichés.

Which artist would you say this is describing?

This is an art on a continual search for the meaning and possibility of personal identity, which both emotionally appeals to and intellectually challenges the viewer. (p.44)

It could be quite literally about any artist, ever.

Alphabetic order

The artists are arranged in alphabetical order, which is one way to do it. But an unintended consequence is that the first 40 or 50 pages are of modern artists, whose work, dating from the 1960s and afterwards, tends to be highly experimental, with lots of installations, photos of performances, film and video and so on.

Women’s bodies / sex

Also women artists from this era often depicted the naked female body in ways designed to subvert the way it’s depicted in ‘traditional’ male art, undermine ‘the male gaze’ and so on. But the unintended cumulative effect is of lots of chaotic scenes and naked women. The Vanessa Beecroft entry features 16 colour photographs of extremely attractive naked or scantily clad woman. We’re still on B and this tends to set the tone for the way we read – and see the images of women in – the rest of the book.

Take, for example, the work of Viennese artist Elke Krystufek (b.1970). Her entry begins by describing  how, at a 1994 group exhibition JETZTZEIT, she bared her breasts and masturbated in a mock-up of a comfortable bathroom in front of gallery guests, starting with her hand and progressing to using a dildo and vibrator. After she climaxed in front of everyone, she got into the bathwater and relaxed.

As in many of Krystufek’s works, the performance addressed the interrelationship between (male) gaze and (auto)erotic pleasure, as well as the interplay between artistically staged identity, feminist emancipation, and the female body. What at first sight may seem like a crude and narcissistic provocation, brusquely ignoring the distinction between the public and private spheres, turns out in the end to be a deliberate game in which social orders and their unconscious normative ascription – intent on authoritatively determining all expressions of sexuality – are consciously subverted. (p.116)

I know plenty of men who’d love to have watched their ‘unconscious normative ascriptions’ being subverted in this way. I wonder if she videoed it? Can’t find it on YouTube, but there is this work, which, I think you’ll agree, pretty much annihilates the Male Gaze.

Here’s another ‘subversive’ work by Marlene Dumas.

‘Because the images are culled from porn magazines, sex in Dumas’ paintings is stripped of its erotic charge’. Got that? These images have no erotic content whatsoever.

Phallocentrism and the castrated woman

In  a 1973 essay titled ‘Visual pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, the film director, scholar and feminist Laura Mulvey examined the relationship between the patriarchal unconscious, the pleasure derived from looking , and the conventional image of woman in cinema and society. Male phallocentrism, Mulvey observed, has defined woman’s role in society as ‘an image of the castrated woman.’ In order to ‘arrive at a new language of desire’, this definition must first be analysed, after which the (visual) pleasure derived from perceiving these images should be destroyed. (p.116)

44 years later I wonder how the project to destroy the visual pleasure to be derived from viewing ‘the conventional image of woman in cinema and society’ is getting on. Maybe it will take a few years more. Or decades. Or centuries.

Traditional art

Away from hard core sexual imagery, ‘traditional’ art – in the form of oil painting – is relatively rare in this book. The names which stand out are Sonia Delaunay, Natalia Goncharova, Frida Kahlo, Lee Krasner, Tamara de Lempicka, Georgia O’Keeffe and Bridget Riley, with Barbara Hepworth as a ‘traditional’ Modernist sculptor. Reading their entries is a relief because there is a lot less about masturbation, sex, vaginas, gender and identity.

Also their work, being so traditionally restricted to painting and sculpture, has been thoroughly assimilated and so is easy and so is a ‘pleasure’ to read.

Middle way

But there is another group, a sort of middle way of plenty of women artists who don’t feel the need to masturbate in public, paint themselves or other women naked or generally harp on about female sexuality. There are plenty of strange and interesting women artists.

Hanne Darboven’s obsession with numbers which seems to have led to walls covered with sheets of papers with various mathematical formulae or combinations of numbers all over them – Wunschkonzert (1984)

Isa Genzken’s abstract sculptures – Guardini (1987)

Mona Hatoum’s cool detached sculptural objects – Kapan (2012). She is now widely acknowledged as one of the leading living artists in the world.

Eva Hesse’s minimalist sculptures – Right After (1969)

Rebecca Horn – admittedly more naked women, but in a genuinely beautiful, aesthetic way – Unicorn (1969), and the later work seems entirely abstract – High Noon (1991)

Kiki Smith – disturbing installations featuring animals and birds – Jersey Crows (1995)

The list of artists

I’ve read criticism saying there’s a bias in the artists selected towards German and European artists, though the bias I noticed was towards American artists. A third of them are or were based in New York, testimony to the centrality of that city – centre of global capitalism, awash with bankers’ money – to the post-war art world.

Here’s the full list. I indicate country of origin and country where they ended up working, link off to some works, and link their names to reviews of exhibitions about or featuring them:

  1. Marina Abramovic – b. 1946 birthplace Yugoslavia, Workplace Amsterdam – Performances
  2. Eija-Liisa Ahtila – b.1959 Finland, Finland – The House (2002) 14 min DVD
  3. Laurie Anderson – b.1947 Chicago, New YorkHome of the brave
  4. Vanessa Beecroft – b.1969 Italy, New York – VB45 (2001)
  5. Louise Bourgeois – b.1911 Paris, New YorkCell
  6. Lygia Clark – b.1920 Brazil, Brazil – A Morte do Plano (1960)
  7. Hanne Darboven – b.1941 Germany, New York
  8. Sonia Delaunay – b.1885 Ukraine, Paris
  9. Rineke Dijkstra – b.1959 Netherlands, Netherlands
  10. Marlene Dumas – b.1953 South Africa, Amsterdam
  11. Tracey Emin – b.1963 England, London
  12. VALIE EXPORT – b.1940 Austria, Cologne – Action Pants, Genital Panic (1969)
  13. Sylvie Fleury – b. 1961 Geneva, Geneva
  14. Isa Genzken – b.1948 Germany, Germany
  15. Nan Goldin – b.1953 Washington, New York
  16. Natalia Goncharova – b.1881 Russia, Paris
  17. Guerilla Girls –
  18. Mona Hatoum – b.1952 Beirut, London
  19. Barbara Hepworth – b.1903 Yorkshire, St Ives
  20. Eva Hesse – b.1936 Hamburg, New York
  21. Hannah Höch – b.1889 Germany, Berlin
  22. Candida Höfer – b.1944 Germany, Germany
  23. Jenny Holzer – b.1950 Ohio, New York
  24. Rebecca Horn – b.1944 Germany, Germany
  25. Frida Kahlo – b.1907 Mexico, Mexico
  26. Lee Krasner – b. 1908 New York, New York
  27. Barbara Kruger – b.1945 New Jersey, New York
  28. Elke Krystufek – b.1970 Vienna, Vienna
  29. Tamara de Lempicka – b.1898 Warsaw, Mexico
  30. Sarah Lucas – b.1962 London, London
  31. Annette Messager – b.1943 France, Paris
  32. Mariko Mori – b.1967 Tokyo, New York
  33. Shirin Neshat – b.1957 Iran, New York
  34. Louise Nevelson – b.1899 Kiev, New York
  35. Georgia O’Keeffe – b.1887 Wisconsin, Santa Fe
  36. Meret Oppenheim – b.1913 Berlin, Basle
  37. Elizabeth Peyton – b.1965 Connecticut, New York
  38. Adrian Piper – b.1948 New York, Cape Cod
  39. Bridget Riley – b.1931 London, London
  40. Pipilotti Rist – b.1962 Switzerland, Switzerland
  41. Niki de Saint Phalle – b.1930 France, California
  42. Cindy Sherman – b.1954 New Jersey, New York
  43. Kiki Smith – b.1954 Nuremberg, New York
  44. Rosemarie Trockel – b.1952 Germany, Germany
  45. Rachel Whiteread – b.1963 London, London – House (1993)
  46. Andrea Zittel – b. 1965 California, New YorkA-Z

Insights from Ute Grosenick’s introduction

In the second paragraph of the introduction Ute Grosenick says there is a ‘gender war’ going on. Alright. It does seem likely when you read any academic work about modern art or any newspaper.

It’s interesting to learn that the first women-only exhibition was held in Amsterdam in 1884. Women-only exhibitions were held in Paris in 1908 and 1918. But there were few female art teachers, women members of national art academies, women art dealers networking among women artists, as well as bans on women attending some or all classes in most art schools.

Grosenick gives the impression that there were two great boom periods in 20th century art:

  • The decade from just before to just after the Great War saw Art Nouveau, Expressionism, Fauvism, Futurism, Cubism, Vorticism, Constructivism, Dada, Abstract Art, Neue Sachlichkeit and Surrealism.
  • The decade from the mid-60s to the mid-70s saw an explosion in the possibilities and definitions of art, exemplified by Pop Art, Op Art, Conceptual Art, Land Art, Fluxus, Arte Povera, Happenings, Performance Art, Body Art and Minimalism.

She says the 1980s were ‘a decade of disillusionment for most women artists’.

She says that the rise of gender studies in universities reflects the way ‘the critical examination of the significance of one’s own and other people’s gender… is becoming ever more central to art’. In my experience of recent exhibitions, I would say that gender and identity are becoming almost the only way in which gallerists and curators can now relate to art.


Related links

Related book reviews

Reviews of exhibitions of women artists I’ve been to

The Art of William Heath Robinson by Geoffrey Beare (2003)

This is a comprehensive coffee-table-sized biography of William Heath Robinson, stuffed with scores of marvellous black-and-white and colour illustrations. It is a joy to hold, read and gaze at.

Heath Robinson has become a byword for preposterous contraptions, but the thing which comes across from this slow, thorough and breezily-written narrative of his life and work, is the extraordinary diversity of his output. He produced a huge variety of types of illustrations, cartoons, commercial art and atmospheric watercolours. In fact at least one of the reviews on Amazon laments that there aren’t enough of the crazy contraption pictures. Well, there are plenty of books devoted solely to Heath Robinson’s absurdist gadgets: this book sets out to present the full range and skilled accomplishment of the man.

Range

Heath Robinson was born in 1870 and died in 1944. His father and brothers were magazine illustrators, so early on doors were opened and contacts arranged. Rather than attempt any kind of overview of his life (which you can get from the Wikipedia article), I am just going to give examples of the types of image he created.

Black and white Illustrations

He did colour and b&w illustrations for Shakespeare and children’s classics e.g. The Water Babies. His edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream shows the influence of the Japanese prints which first arrived in the 1860s and 1870s, and had become commonplace by the turn of the century. White – big white spaces, contrasted with very fine, one-line outlines i.e. not roughed-in or sketched but clinically precise defined lines. And black, the use of solid undifferentiated black for trees, buildings, outlines, whatever – to create extremely clear, classic, crisp images.

Following his illustrated Shakespeare, Heath Robinson suggested an illustrated edition of Rabelais’ late medieval comic masterpiece, Gargantua and Pantagruel (1904), which allowed him full reign to depict grotesque and sometimes scary human figures and faces, unlike anything else he ever did.

Coloured illustrations

Distinctly different from the black and white line illustrations are the fabulously atmospheric colour illustrations he did during the same period. Some of the Shakespeare ones are stunning in their delicate colouring and phenomenal detail.

But my favourites are the extraordinarily vivid colour illustrations he did for Rudyard Kipling’s 15-page poem, A Song of the English, a hymn to the British Empire, its farflung capitals, and the toil and risks taken by the sailors who bind it together through trade and war.

Authored books

Heath Robinson only wrote and illustrated three books of his own, but they are masterpieces of weird imagination. In the earliest, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902), the eponymous uncle falls asleep looking after a baby, which is promptly stolen by the mythical Bag-bird, resulting in Lubin taking trips around the world to find and bring the baby back.

Along the way Uncle Lubin invents a variety of devices from an air-ship to a ramshackle submarine. You can see in these illustrations the seeds of the later career concocting crazy contraptions.

War satire

The advent of the Great War dried up the market for luxury illustrated books like the ones Heath Robinson had been illustrating. Paper was short, tastes had changed. Luckily Heath Robinson had been busy developing a tidy side-line in cartoons and commercial work (adverts), alongside the book illustrations. When one of his early publishers went bankrupt he was able to switch career into providing cartoons for the growing number of up-market weekly magazines. Thus Heath Robinson managed parallel careers as illustrator and humorous artist until the slump in the book trade in the early 1920s killed the market for illustration.

His facility with comic cartoons is exemplified in a series of three books of satirical drawings about the war itself – Some “Frightful” War Pictures 1915), Hunlikely! (1916), and the brilliantly titled The Saintly Hun: a book of German virtues (1917).

Given how grotesque we know he could be from the Rabelais pictures, the notable thing about the war cartoons is their restraint – any animus is completely subdued to the comic end. Although there are sometimes silly contraptions involved, for the most part the cartoons focus on absurd activities, like blowing cold air at British soldiers in the trenches to give them neckache, and so on.

Twenty years later the Hun were back, this time in Nazi uniforms. Heath Robinson embarked on another series of cartoon satirising the enemy. But you can see at a glance what has happened in those twenty years, namely he has become the Heath Robinson of fame and legend, a byword for elaborately home-made machines, for preposterously complex and unnecessarily convoluted devices concocted to carry out simple or absurdist ends.

You can also see how the human figures have evolved. By the 1940s they have become much more standardised. Although often characterful, the figures are far more restrained than the fatter, guffawing figures from the Great War.

The deliberate sameyness of the human figures, their frequent reduction to emotionless ciphers, is to emphasise the craziness of the contraptions. To put it another way, the human figures become more sober and realistic in exactly the degree that the machines become preposterous and improbable.

Heath Robinson is quoted as saying that the comic result is partly achieved by making the people involved take their operations with deadly seriousness. In the Great War cartoons fat sergeants and guffawing sergeant majors are laughing at the silliness of their tactics. In the WWII cartoons, the po-faces  of the participants are part of the point.

Cartoons

It was in the 1920s that Heath Robinson really acquired a wide reputation for the outrageous contraptions which he created in hundreds and hundreds of freelance cartoons for a wide range of magazines.

Adverts

He also applied his by now distinctive style and imagination to create adverts for various products.

How to…

In the 1930s Heath Robinson collaborated with the humorous writer K.R.G. Browne on a set of comic ‘How to…’ books designed to take the mickey out of modern living – How to live in a flat (1936), How to make a garden grow, How to be a perfect husband, How to be a motorist.

These still rely on preposterous exaggeration for their comic effect, but they are notable for having a much cleaner line, much more white space. The amusement is partly in their aerodynamic Art Deco lines.

Just a glance back at the high-contraption works makes you realise he was deploying a completely different, stripped-down style in these books, which relies on a relatively simple (if absurd) idea for its humour – the one-trick idea of his collaborator – rather than the intricately tortuous chain of machinery characteristic of his own invention, such as:

Watercolours

So by the 1920s Heath Robinson had established the cartoon style for which he would become known as ‘the Gadget King’; his name was well on the way to entering the language to describe any jerry-rigged, home-made and bodged-up contraption.

But the tendency of this brilliant book, throughout, is to emphasise the phenomenal technical skills which underlay this achievement, specifically his astonishing gift of linemanship and draughtsmanship, apparent from the earliest of his luxury illustrations of Shakespeare, of Hans Christian Anderson, the Water Babies and so on.

And in particular the book brings out a completely overlooked area of his achievement, Heath Robinson’s astonishing mastery of watercolour. Right at the start of his career Heath Robinson had ambitions to become a landscape artist and, although the need to earn a living drove him into illustrations and then cartoon work, he never ceased painting beautiful, atmospheric watercolours for his own pleasure.

Many of these were published in this 2003 volume for the first time, in large-scale illustrations printed on high quality paper which really bring out their delicate beauty.

Hard not to be thrilled by the delicacy and taste of these sensitive, evocative watercolours. Beare points out how Heath Robinson uses a unity of tone i.e. the colours are mostly from the same part of the colour spectrum in order to convey a subdued but subtly varied impression.

Dulwich Gallery and the Heath Robinson Museum

This beautiful book was originally published to accompany an exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery which I visited, back in 2003. The author says the exhibition and book are designed to encourage support for the idea of establishing a permanent home for Heath Robinson’s work, as cartoonist, illustrator and serious artist.

So it’s lovely to come full circle, because what made me take this book down off my shelf was the fact that I recently visited the new(ish) Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner, north-west London, which was opened as recently as October 2016 and which, despite being rather small, provides a perfect setting to display a surprising amount of this wonderful artist’s inspiring, uplifting and often very funny work.

P.S.

Heath Robinson named his cat Saturday Morning.


Related links

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

Avenger by Frederick Forsyth (2003)

I found this an absorbing and entertaining read for the following reasons:

1. The narrative interweaves the stories of a number of different characters, which start out in different countries, times and places. Their stories are interesting in themselves, but it is also entertaining to try and figure out how they will eventually all be tied together. It has a very wide variety of location, setting, narrative, and a large number of protagonists, in contrast to some of Forsyth’s other, more monothematic fictions focused on one hero.

2. One of Forsyth’s strengths is his snappy, journalistic summary of conflicts. His early experience was in the Biafran Civil War (1967-70), which laid the basis of his ability to not only grasp the essentials of a conflict but to convey it in clear, emphatic prose. Thus, in successive chapters, Forsyth gives us brisk, journalistic summaries of the Battle of Britain, the Vietnam War, the Yugoslav Civil War, the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, and then Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s various terrorist attacks.

3. Forsyth’s other characteristic trait as a novelist is his fascination with bureaucratic procedure and his ability to make it not only readable, but compelling. The character Cal Dexter eventually becomes a Legal Aid lawyer in New York and in the two cases of his which are important to the plot – the defence of a poor black boy accused of computer fraud, and the case of two Cambodian refugees seeking asylum – Forsyth explains the bureaucratic processes and introduces all the official personnel involved in the cases in what ought to be mind-numbing detail, but which I enjoyed, because I found the explanations so lucid and logical. I myself work in a government agency – if only our explanations of processes and procedures were so clear and authoritative!

4. So Forsyth’s ‘characters’ may be types and stereotypes – and anyone looking for the kind of depth of character or character development associated with the ‘literary’ novel, will be pretty scornful of Forsyth’s shallowness – but I am less interested in character than situation, and I find Forsyth’s swift, confident depiction of a number of modern conflict situations fascinating and thrilling. Early in my career I worked in international current affairs ie wars and conflicts, and I produced news items about the first Gulf War (August 2, 1990 – February 28, 1991). I find Forsyth’s use of contemporary conflicts make for a fascinating read, and his quick powerful summaries of events are enjoyably muscular and virile.

How many novels do you know set in the Yugoslav civil wars or against either of the Gulf Wars? Why aren’t there more? Why are more contemporary British novels set in the court of Henry VIII or in ancient Rome than in the recent conflicts where British troops have fought and died?

Maybe because the historical settings are so long ago and far away that you can pretty much make it up. Whereas there have been lots of factual accounts of our recent wars and so weaving fiction in among its well-known intricacies is trickier. So I find Forsyth’s confident, almost reckless ability to set his stories amid recent conflicts not just fascinating but admirable.

Plot strands

American Calvin Dexter comes from a tough background, child of an itinerant builder, who volunteers to fight in Vietnam and becomes one of only a handful of ‘Tunnel Rats’. These are the US special forces trained to go down into the Viet Cong’s vast network of underground tunnels, overcome a legion of gruesome booby traps, and kill the enemy. Forsyth’s chapters describing this in documentary detail are riveting and terrifying. Calvin and his partner tunnel rat (nicknamed the Badger and the Mole, respectively) may be clichéd Hollywood heroes, but it doesn’t matter: their role is not to explore the human psyche, but to be tokens, like the pieces in Monopoly or Risk – meaningless in themselves, but important because of the matrix of situations and places they give us imaginative entry into.

In fact having given the novel another of his short abstract titles (cf The Negotiator, The Deceiver) Forsyth goes whole hog and gives every one of the thirty-three chapters an abstract name eg The Lawyer, The Killer, The Geek, and so on. In a novel like this it is the very anonymity of the characters, precisely the way they play powerful types and predictable roles, which gives the narrative its force.

Cal returns to the States and uses his GI Bill money to study as a lawyer. Practicing as a Legal Aid lawyer in the mean streets of Manhattan, he covers thousands of hard luck cases, but two are singled out – he not only gets a poor black boy from the slums off a charge of hacking into a major bank and stealing a million dollars, he hassles the bank’s CEO into hiring the boy as a security adviser. And he takes pity on a middle-aged couple fleeing Cambodia, who stowed away on a ship to New York, persuading the immigration judge to take a kindly view and let them stay in the States – even though Calvin discovers they’re not Cambodian at all, but Vietnamese, and that the husband in fact fought against Cal’s own unit! With typical Forsythian manliness, Cal says, ‘It was long ago and far away and we were both soldiers’ and moves on.

The spring of the plot occurs early on, when an idealistic young American, Ricky Colenzo, who’s volunteered to go work for a small NGO in Yugoslavia during the brutal civil wars there, kindly agrees to drive one of the Muslim staff up into the mountains to his old village to check on his family. They run into a pack of Serbian psychopaths who have already massacred everyone in the village and who now kill Ricky and his companion, by forcing them into the village cesspit and pushing them under with staves and poles, ignoring their pleas for mercy, drowning them in liquid effluent.

Ricky’s grandfather is an influential Canadian billionaire of a type familiar with Forsyth’s fiction, one Stephen Edmonds, from Windsor Ontario, a man with high level contacts in the Senate and US Administration. (It is here that the early chapter featuring two fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain finally makes sense – one of them was Edmonds, the other a senior official in the Administration who he now asks a favour from). This contact has contacts who have contacts which eventually lead Edmonds to a British firm of mercenaries, in particular an ex-Paratrooper named Phil Gracey, who specialises in finding and retrieving people, for money. In line with Forsyth’s typological approach it is easy to forget Gracey’s name because he is referred to throughout the text as The Tracker.

There is then a long and persuasive account of how The Tracker travels to the Balkans to investigate Ricky’s disappearance. There is a lot of plausible detail about false identities, fake passports, maps and travelling through the wartorn landscape. Forsyth factually but powerfully conveys the topography of warzones, and the pitifulness of its survivors. He is blunt and no-nonsense when describing the gangsters and psychopaths who made up the so-called ‘paramilitaries’ and matter of fact about the way they murder, rape and torture their victims.

The Tracker establishes when Ricky went missing and that he was probably murdered, but the trail goes cold up in the mountains and he is forced to abandon the search, sending Edmonds a full report. The focus then switches to an account of the naive Serbian young man, Milan Rajak, raised in a nice middle-class Belgrade household. He is contacted out of the blue by a friend of a friend who’s in a Serbian paramilitary which needs a radio operator. Naively believing he is doing his patriotic duty, Rajak goes off and joins the gang of a dozen hard men who he soon realises are extremely hardened psychopaths and killers. He is an eye-witness to the sadistic killing of the young American aid worker and, after throwing up and crying, asks to leave the gang. Its psychopath leader, Zoran Zilic, agrees but says if he ever breathes a word of what he’s seen and been involved in, Zoran will find him, cut off his penis with a broken wineglass and stuff it down his throat.

Back home Rajak goes into a long depression marked by anxiety attacks and sweating nightmares. He eventually shocks his parents by asking to go into the (Serbian Orthodox) church. We are introduced to monastery life and a sympathetic abbot, but the point of this plotline is that, eventually, years later, Rajak writes a full confession of the events surrounding Ricky’s murder. It comes to the attention of the authorities and, eventually, to security services who tip off The Tracker. He returns to Serbia, interviews the boy, and establishes the name of the leader of the paramilitary – Zoran Zilic.

As usual with Forsyth, there is some interesting background on the leaders of different gangs, the Serbian warlords, as well as insight into the rise and fall of Slobodan Milosevic’s ugly regime. Through this we learn that Zilic, after acquiring a fortune as thug-in-chief to the regime, realised the end was nigh when the US started bombing Belgrade (March to June 1999), and disappeared. The Tracker establishes all this and, using Rajak’s account, is able to take doctors, police and forensic scientists to the ruined village in the mountains and to the septic tank, and to recover the remains of poor Ricky Colenso. These are cleaned, put in a casket and flown back to the States for burial. The Tracker has finished his task and is paid.

Going after Zoran Zilic

It is now that Edmonds launches part two of the novel by commissioning a different man to track down Zoran Zilic. He uses his contacts to discover the existence of a freelance American fixer, codenamed The Avenger, who specialises in ‘rendition’ ie illegally kidnapping and transporting wrongdoers to the States. The way to contact him is to leave details in an obscure magazine devoted to antique aircraft. Only now do we realise the significance of the opening scene where we were introduced to ex-Vietnam vet, Cal Dexter, jogging round the neighbourhood of his house in the country. Because when he got home, had a shower and squeezed some fresh orange juice, Cal opened a copy of this magazine and saw the ad.

Through a series of front companies, secret drops, fake names etc, The Avenger takes his instructions from Edmonds. Not to eliminate Zilic – that would be too easy, too merciful. To bring him back to the US to stand trial and be locked up forever. Now begins a long sequence where we observe Cal call in favours from the miscellaneous characters we met early in the story: for example, the black kid he got off the computer hacking charge, Washington Lee, is now a successful computer security consultant and Cal asks him to break into certain databases to help his search. It turns out the wife in the Vietnamese couple is an expert forger: Cal gets her to make various passports.

Cal tracks Zilic to the United Arab Emirates where he is seen consorting with various unsavoury types including, to his astonishment, a representative of the CIA. Puzzled but undeterred, Cal makes the breakthrough in his investigation, which is to establish that Zilic has spent his ill-gotten fortune building a James Bond-style impenetrable fortress-cum-farm, a self-sufficient colony almost, on the Caribbean coast of the fictional South American country of San Martin.

This section is both tense and meticulous as Forsyth characteristically devotes a great deal of attention to the multiple identities, fake passports and backup stories which The Avenger constructs in preparation for, flying to Amsterdam to create one. But Cal’s blood goes cold when he receives an anonymous phone call tipping him off that the authorities are on to his plans; the CIA knows he’s coming.

Project Peregrine

Because unknown to Edmonds or The Avenger, Zilic is at the centre of an extremely secret CIA plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden, Project Peregrine. We now have some more lengthy backstory describing the intelligence career of Paul Devereux III. Unlike his intelligence colleagues, he wasn’t deceived that the war was over when the Soviet Union collapsed and communist regimes around the world disappeared. He was an Arabist, familiar with the thoughts and rhetoric of the Islamic world and realised a new threat was arising in that area. Forsyth, once again, gives a useful, brisk and authoritative overview of the slowly rising tide of Islamic terrorism and, in particular, a potted biography of bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

This is the plausible historical background to the rather far-fetched plot. For in the ruins of Belgrade amid the chaos after Milosevic’s fall, was some weapons grade uranium. For years Al Qaeda have been trying to get their hands on some to fulfil their aim of striking a blow against the West. The plan is this: Zilic will play the part of a murderous Serbian warlord (easy enough), rich but greedy, who stole some of the uranium before he fled Belgrade. Now he is willing to sell it to the highest bidder. Through underworld contacts he will establish contact with Al Qaeda. Negotiations will lead to a meeting with senior AQ staff. At this meeting Zilic will suddenly and unreasonably double his price. Almost certainly this will prompt the AQ VIPs to make a phone call to their boss, bin Laden, who never leaves his Afghan hideout. High overhead US spy satellites will be primed to intercept the call and establish the location of the recipient. The split second it is established a Tomahawk cruise missile will be fired from a US warship stationed in the Gulf. Three minutes later the location which took the phone call and everything and everyone around it will be obliterated.

This elaborate (and pretty flaky) plan has been two years in the making, and now we see the whole thing from Devereaux’s point of view. All the chatter, all the word on the street, is that Al Qaeda are about to launch some major attack, a big one, against the US. Devereaux sees his mission as absolutely vital, to cut off the head of the organisation before some dreadful atrocity is carried out. So: Avenger or Devereaux: who are we rooting for?

Throughout the book Forsyth makes us constantly aware of the timeline of events: as the murder of young Ricky in 1995 led onto the Tracker’s return visit to Serbia in 1999, and then the commissioning of The Avenger. Now it is August 2001, just turning into September. Devereaux is frantic that Project Peregrine is not disrupted. For if Zilic feels he is being threatened in any way, he will abort his role for the CIA and the entire anti-AQ plot will collapse.

It is this which informs his panic-stricken orders to stop at nothing to prevent The Avenger finding or even spooking Zilic. But someone in his own organisation is leaking: hence the anonymous tip-off to Cal before he leaves the States.

Final act

Like a Jacobean tragedy, a set of players or tokens or ‘characters’, enmeshed in a whole matrix of plans and intentions, are now launched on collision course, and it makes for a gripping and thrilling read. The Tracker makes his way to San Martin – itself portrayed as a typical banana republic with a very evil head of secret police, well used to torture and, of course, friendly with the CIA. Devereaux sends his number two to work with this loathesome man to try and catch The Tracker, a decorated war hero.

Thus the final chapters pit Devereaux, his man on the spot and the San Martin police, against the solo mission of Cal Dexter: who will get to Zilic first? Will The Tracker even be able to smuggle himself into the country now all its border guards are alerted? Will he make it to Zilic’s coastal fortress and stand a chance of penetrating the awesome defences built for Zilic by his South African architect, with all its razor wire, Afrikaans security guards, Doberman guard dogs and so on? Will Devereaux be able to warn Zilic and so carry through his long-planned operation Peregrine, or will the Tracker bring the whole thing down in flames?

9/11

And all this is set against something the reader knows but the characters do not: for The Tracker’s entry into San Martin and final attempt on the fortress happens in the first days of September 2001. Ie Devereaux is correct, Al Qaeda are planning a terrorist ‘spectacular’ against the US, and it will occur on 9/11.

At moments I wondered whether it was kind of ‘blasphemous’ for Forsyth to use the grotesque tragedy of 9/11 as backdrop to a novel. But plenty of novels (and movies) use the Holocaust the same way, and all aspects of the Second World War, and 9/11 has itself been the setting for novels and movies so, logically, no…

Maybe it’s the bloodless, nerveless way Forsyth uses it as just another backdrop which rankled slightly, illogically. It isn’t given any special resonance or depth of horror. It is another in Forsyth’s gallery of atrocities.

Which prompts the thought that Forsyth’s fictions exist in a world of permanent war. In this world there is only conflict between cunning enemies and bonds forged between tough professional men. There are hardly any women in Forsyth’s novels and no romance (Cal’s teenage daughter is abducted and murdered by Hispanic sex slavers, who he pursues and executes, in a vivid sub-plot. When he returns some weeks later it is to find his wife has committed suicide. The net result, though is to make him, once again, a Man Alone.)

With no women or love interest, with no civilising or restraining forces, in Forsyth’s world there is just endless conflict, driven by evil men, causing appalling civilian casualties, which the intrinsically moral & decent Western nations struggle to combat and contain. The lack of psychology, the lack of women, the lack of realistic characters, the often preposterous plots, have led Forsyth to be widely ridiculed in literary circles. But three points:

1. Forsyth would always have said that we do live in a world of constant conflict and threat; it’s just that most people in the comfy West refuse to acknowledge or admit it. And – from my days in international affairs – I couldn’t agree more with him. Our way of life is faced with serious existential threats. Events of the past year or two have finally brought this to a lot more people’s attention, whether it’s the machine gun attacks in Paris or the escalating refugee crisis.

2. Forsyth used to be ridiculed for being an alarmist right-winger. Ironically, he has lived to see a lot of Western opinion move in his direction. When terrorists are massacring civilians in Paris or London, when a million refugees, terrorists and criminals among them, threaten to swamp European countries ie when push comes to shove, it turns out that many citizens of the comfy West are forced to make decisions about the actual world, the larger world beyond their comfortable lives, and those choices are the ones Forsyth was way ahead of us about. Yes, we do want strong security services; Yes, we do want increased funding for intelligence and surveillance work; Yes, we do want hard men from the Army and armed police to patrol the streets, if it is the only way to guarantee our security. It turns out that we do live in a world of permanent conflict which Forsyth has been portraying.

3. In a narrowly literary sense, Forsyth’s novels are so flat, so lacking in psychology or nuance, as almost to be avant-garde. In fact reading the next novel, The Afghan, I find many of the wars covered in this book also feature in that one. Of course this is because the same wars have occurred in the last 25 years, but within Forsyth’s fiction, they are used like familiar settings or landscapes, like the topographical features of, say, Hardy’s Wessex. A familiar and recurring and even repetitive backdrop against which the minutely detailed, carefully worked-out and somehow totally improbable narratives are set.


Credit

Avenger by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2003. All quotes and references are from the 2003 Bantam paperback edition.

Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

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