Countries need oil for blood, steel for bone, rubber for feet. And in wartime, even more so. Think back to your American History courses. Why did the South lose the Civil War? In large part, because it was an agricultural region and, over time, the factories of the North simply out-produced the farms of the South. Just as rock breaks scissors, steel stomps cotton.
And so it was in World War II. There's a terrific book, now sadly out of print, called The Crime and Punishment of I.G. Farben --- Farben being the giant German industrial conglomerate that set out to create synthetic oil and rubber for the resource-challenged Nazis. Farben built a factory for this effort at Auschwitz, the better to use concentration camp prisoners as workers. (The irony: Farben was already making most of the poison gas used in the death camps.) It's an astonishing business story, but the most fascinating part is not something you'd imagine: It's the relationship of American companies to Farben . Yes, Farben had deals with Standard Oil of New Jersey, DuPont, Alcoa, Dow Chemical, and others. It's a shameful story, and if you're someone who likes to see the world in black and white terms, you should stay far away from this.
And then, of course, there is the war in Iraq. America's need for oil is rarely mentioned as a motivation. But who knows? Someday a novelist like Alan Furst may untangle the complex, hidden strands of business and politics and suggest a scenario for the war that doesn't avoid the oil factor.
He's certainly up the task based on 'Blood of Victory' [To buy the paperback from Amazon.com, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.] the second Furst novel to delight me. (Diligent readers, urged on by my rave for Dark Voyage, already share my mania for Furst.) It is based on a simple progression: In 1939, seeing war ahead, the British Secret Service tried to sabotage the Rumanian oil fields. They failed. In 1940, they tried again.
At the center of this British effort, Furst presents us with an unlikely hero: a Russian emigre writer, I.A. Serebin. He's living in Paris, hoping to avoid the war. When we meet him, he's on a freighter, bound for Istanbul and a last visit with a dying friend. Serebin has always been lucky with woman; on the boat he begins an affair with Marie-Galante, wife of a French diplomat.
Furst is one of those novelists who does everything well. He creates credible characters, gives them snappy dialogue, has a fine sense of place and a keen eye for the unusual fact, and he's got a sharp, terse style that makes his stories go down easy --- like you-are-there journalism. If there's a more painless history and psychology lesson than a Furst novel, I've missed it.
Oilmen, for example, are described thus: 'They're like cats...it was hard to know from the sound of them whether they were fighting or making love.'
In one paragraph, Furst delivers an excellent biography of Colonel John ('Empire Jack') Griffiths, who tried to wreck the Ploesti oil fields in World War I.
On lovers, parting: They 'said a final goodbye on deck; reserved, steadfast, a farewell in time of war, tears forborne to preclude the memory of tears.'
But let's not focus only on how smart Furst is. Let's celebrate the action. There's a terrific gun battle in a city street that leaves a professor dead --- 'Why wouldn't you lie down?' Serebin wonders --- and a great sequence with a barge wired with land minds. And there's a chase on a high, narrow mountain road overlooking a river that ends in a way that will have you shaking your head at someone's courage.
Paris. Belgrade. Istanbul. London. Titled women, German thugs, Russian poets. A love story, a thriller, a meditation on the grotty basement of war. You've got to hand it to Alan Furst --- he can really pack a short book full of deeply satisfying reading.
To buy 'Blood of Victory' from Amazon.com, click here.