Monday, December 6, 2010

Book Review: 'The Spies of Warsaw' by Alan Furst

The Spies of Warsaw (2008)
Alan Furst (1941-)

266 pages

A German engineer, working for a tank manufacturer in 1937 Nazi Germany, falls under the spell of a beautiful polish woman visiting his town. She tells him of her difficult life back in Poland, and, not entirely unaware that she is not all she claims to be, he begins visiting her in Warsaw, and trying to help her, in exchange for the excitement of an elicit affair and the escape that it offers from his dull work and family life. As his love for her grows, and her financial needs begin to surpass his limited income, he allows her to lead him into the waiting trap of a French agent, who provides him the money he needs to support her in exchange for documents and information on German tank production.

So opens Alan Furst's novel of espionage and intrigue in 1937 Warsaw, where the political elite's fear of war is palpable, with Poland tightly wedged between Germany and the Soviet Union. A German tank designer becoming an informant to a French agent on polish territory highlights the international web of spies Furst depicts in pre-war Warsaw. French, Soviet and German agents, operating as counselor officers in Warsaw, together with Polish spies and political officials, meet at intricately described receptions and dinners, and sometimes in private, each wondering how much the other side knows, searching for new information and cautious to guard their own secrets; even allies keep tabs on each others activities.

The French agent at the center of the novel is a colonel, who is serving at the French consulate as a Foreign Affairs officer, but whose true assignment is to gather information on the German military industry and war plans. As the story progresses, he struggles as much with his own superior back in Paris --- whose views on the political situation in Europe differ starkly from his own --- as with the other agents he encounters in Warsaw. And, ultimately, this novel is more one of ideas and history than a tale of action and adventure. There is certainly some action along the way, as the various sides resort occasionally to violence, but the outcome of these episodes is never really in question. Instead Furst uses the story to describe some of the political thinking in Europe in the late 1930's that allowed the German military build-up to continue unchecked: the split in French military and political circles as to Germany's intentions, plans for war and prospects if war were to come; the Polish government's willingness to forsake the build-up of their own forces to earn desperately needed money, as they relied on a (false) belief that the French would come to their aid if they were invaded.

These historical and political ideas that Furst build into the novel are interesting to consider, but they are not finally enough to really carry the story. And, except for the French agent, none of the characters is developed much: the French are courteous, upstanding and courageous, the Germans with the exception of one intellectual who opposes the Nazi regime are either cowards or bullies, and the Polish are mostly window dressing for the story. So what's left is a fairly straight-forward spy story; a fun read that holds the readers attention as the plot develops. But what remains when one has finished the book is not much beyond an already familiar history: aside from a few who spoke out, Europe slept while Nazi Germany prepared for war.

Read quotes from this book

Other reviews / information:
A more positive review in The Los Angeles Times

A mixed review of a more recent book in Furst's 'Spies' series, that notes something that I also found in the book reviewed here, on the language Furst has characters use: The New York Times Book Review

No comments:

Post a Comment