Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Alan Furst's Dark Star

A post about Alan Furst’s The World at Night (1996) was this blog’s first, last November. I mentioned that I had been left a bit cold by a Furst novel I’d read earlier, The Polish Officer (1995) and, while I praised The World at Night, I didn’t rave about it.

Today I come to rave. But for the opening rave I’ll turn to Brad DeLong, whose recommendation made me pick up Dark Star (1991) in the first place:
When I talk to practically any of my undergraduates these days, I have a nearly impossible task to do when I try to convince them that the twentieth century has, after all, ended much better than it might have been. The half-full undergraduates talk of how wonderful and advanced our industrial civilization is, and how human progress to this point was nearly inevitable. The half-empty undergraduates talk about poverty in the developing world, inequality, and injustice, and seem deaf to the idea that the world we live in is much better than the world that we seemed headed for during the second quarter of this century. The Great Depression. Stalin's purges. World War II. Hitler's genocides--they have read about these, but they are not *real*, and the idea that for decades people thought that the forces headed by Stalin or by Hitler were the wave of the future (or the last chance to stop an even greater evil) does not penetrate below the surface.

So the next time I teach a course on the entire politico-economic history of the twentieth century, I think I may assign Alan Furst's novel Dark Star, for it does a better job than anything else I have read to catch the atmosphere of the days when Josef Stalin seemed to be the lesser of two evils--and it is a very fine novel besides.

DeLong continues in this vein, and it’s worth reading his whole post (or watching the videocast). But in those introductory paragraphs, he lays out Furst’s greatest achievement: to put the reader back into the utter uncertainty of mid-century, mid-war Europe, where the only things you know for sure are that danger is ahead, things are definitely going to get worse, and you shouldn’t waste your time on long-term plans. In Dark Star, Szara, a Russian journalist of Polish descent find himself being pulled deeper and deeper into work for Stalin’s intelligence arm, the NKVD, despite his grave misgivings about Stalin’s purges. Every day, it seems, brings a new choice between two evils, a new balancing between what he must do to survive and what he can’t do and still live with himself. And as despairing as Szara is, we know things are about to get worse: when he discovers that German generals and NKVD figures are meeting secretly, we know that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact lurks on the horizon.

DeLong compares reading Dark Star to seeing Casablanca for the first time. I wouldn’t go quite that far—Dark Star isn’t as glamorous and romantically captivating as Casablanca (in fact, the actual romances that feature in it are, like those in all the Furst novels I’ve read, the weakest part). It’s never going to stay in my head and heart the way that movie does. But that’s now really what Furst is after anyway: for all the excitement and adventure of the novel, he’s painting a more serious picture, both broader and deeper, that ranges comfortably all over Europe and the late 1930s, revealing, in big and small ways, how people cope with looming catastrophe.

I do, however, think Dark Star has something fascinating and important in common with Casablanca—but in the negative. Casablanca, despite being made in 1942, when the outcome of World War II was still very much in the air, exudes confidence. It’s pervaded with a sense that the Allies are going to win, and that confidence seems very real. It’s a movie to remember, and treasure, should the world ever happen to fall into similarly dark times.

Dark Star, despite being written forty-five years after the end of the war, manages the opposite. No one knows who’s going to win—if anything, it seems clear that the Nazis have the upper hand—and the Allies may just decide to fold. When Russia and Germany sign the non-aggression pact and begin dividing up Poland, it feels like the world is ending. World War II truly was an existential crisis for Western civilization, and as pundits and politicians invoke that time to justify their short-sighted anti-terror plans, it’s important that we remember that essential difference between then and now. If a novel—a page-turner of an espionage novel—helps us do that, all the better.

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