Title:                      Dark Star

Author:                 Alan Furst

Furst, Alan (1991). Dark Star. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

LCCN:    90019217

PS3556.U76 D37 1991


Date Posted:      April 10, 2017

Reviewed by Herbert Mitgang[1]

The place and time is Paris in 1938, as Franco is driving to victory in Spain and before Hitler’s invasion of Poland, which would draw all of Europe into World War II. Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass in Germany, has shattered any illusions that the Third Reich might halt its murderous persecution of the Jews. Andre Szara, a 40-year-old Polish-born Soviet Jew working as a Paris correspondent for Pravda and a spy for the People’s Commisariat for Internal Affairs, better known by its more terrifying initials NKVD, is invited by an aristocratic Frenchman to his private club in Neuilly. It is raining.

Joseph de Montfried, a titled French Jew who resembles a Rothschild right down to owning a vineyard that bears his name on an excellent Beaune, has a proposition. If Szara can use his intelligence network to trade information about German bomber production to the British in return for British passports, thousands of Jews will be saved by escaping to Palestine. Neither money nor favors are involved in the deal. The only aim is humanistic—to rescue Jews in Germany before they are shipped to concentration camps. Does the Pravda correspondent dare to break ranks, risk his neck and secretly pass on the vital information? After De Montfried shakes his hand, the club steward gives Szara his umbrella, “which apparently had been dried with a cloth.”

That little touch of the dried umbrella is one of a hundred similar touches of authenticity of place and character that linger in the mind while reading Alan Furst’s Dark Star. It is a rich, deeply moving novel of suspense that is equal parts espionage thriller, European history and love story. Mr. Furst, whose previous novel, Night Soldiers[2], also looked behind the inner workings of Soviet intelligence in the years leading up to and during World War II, has surpassed himself in Dark Star. The time frame of the late 1930s on the Continent was once the special property of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene; Mr. Furst has ventured into their fictional territory and brought out a story that is equally original and engaging. Because Szara is a Soviet agent with soul, Dark Star may remind readers of a similar Russian personality in Martin Cruz Smith’s police procedural, Gorky Park.[3]

The historical background and intelligence information are woven into the novel seamlessly. It’s as if Mr. Furst obtained documents under a Freedom of Information Act—which, of course, doesn’t exist in the Soviet Union—about NKVD activities. The paranoia of Stalinism looms over the story; spies and counterspies tap into each other’s networks all over central and western Europe. Idealistic true believers serve as couriers and murderers, only to be executed themselves. All intellectuals and Jews are suspected of treason. Hitler’s overt anti-Semitic actions are almost matched by Stalin’s covert trials and disappearances.

Again and again in this long and occasionally repetitive novel, Mr. Furst emphasizes that the only people Stalin trusts are his fellow-Georgians. One of the protagonist’s superiors in Moscow warns him against the duplicity of the Georgians, “After all, they are our Sicilians, these southerners, and their feuds end only one way.” While there is no apparent subtext to the story, an impression remains that has a certain current relevance—that the people in the restless Soviet Republics, some of whom are encountered in the novel in wonderful party scenes, working for the NKVD, differ greatly in their attitudes toward the central government.

Dark Star is more than history and arrivals and departures across European borders with false passports. The author places Andre Szara at the center of events. He is present during Kristallnacht in Berlin, visiting the woman he loves, when the bestial SS bullyboys destroy shops and synagogues, and he is in Poland when the German Stukas and tanks attack. Eventually, Szara is on the run himself, tracked by his former intelligence masters in Moscow. Though it takes a leap of faith, the author is so adept at revealing the inside stuff of espionage that he almost succeeds in making the reader believe that a German aristocrat will save the Pravda correspondent-turned-spy and make a private pact with him to help stop Hitlerism in the midst of the war.

Mr. Furst is particularly effective on the subject of intelligence, salting his narrative with references to tradecraft that add flavor to his story. “That was the nature of the intelligence landscape as he understood it,” he writes. “In a world of perpetual night, a thousand signals flickered in the darkness, some would change the world, others were meaningless, or even dangerous. Not even an organization the size of the NKVD could examine them all, so now and then it called on a knowledgeable friend.” And: “He calmed himself down, decided not to think about it, and left the embassy with a pocket full of money and a determined heart, the twin pillars of espionage.”

The Pravda correspondent’s inner thoughts are set down in italics. The technique has a kind of “Strange Interlude”[4] effect, but it works well. Mr. Furst is a stylist, very much in command of his material, who succeeds in making a dozen men and women come alive in times past. His Dark Star casts a strong new light on the old world of espionage.

[1] Herbert Mitgang, “Books of The Times; Spying for Russia in Prewar Europe,” New York Times (June 12, 1991), downloaded April 10, 2017

[2] Furst, Alan (1988). Night Soldiers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

[3] Smith, Martin Cruz (1981). Gorky Park. New York: Random House

[4] Strange Interlude is an experimental play in nine acts by American playwright Eugene O’Neill. O’Neill finished it in 1923, but it was not produced on Broadway until 1928, when it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was included in Burns Mantle’s The Best Plays of 1927-1928. The play’s subject matter, very controversial for the 1920s, led to it being censored or banned in many cities outside New York.


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