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Alan Furst: Dark Voyage

Alan Furst

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 01, 2005
Category: Fiction

I spent my free moments this week reading my favorite kind of book — one you can’t put down.

I read on buses, as I walked, while waiting for friends at restaurants.

And, all day long, it seemed, I got the same reaction. A bemused smile. And a question: ‘How many have you read?’

‘Dark Voyage’ [To buy the paperback from, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.] is, in fact, my introduction to Alan Furst. My belated introduction — almost everyone I know seems to have been reading him for years. And keeping him a secret. I can understand that. Alan Furst is like a great restaurant no one has yet discovered, a beach that tourists haven’t found — you want to keep him all for yourself.

The curious thing about Furst-love is that it’s not a gender thing. His novels are set in Europe in the years before (and, sometimes, during) World War II, and their ostensible topic is espionage, and the occasional gun does go off, but these are most definitely not ‘guy’ books — indeed, men looking for testosterone-powered thrillers of the Tom Clancy school will be bitterly disappointed by Furst. Because he is, first and foremost, a novelist of considerable gifts. He can create intriguing situations. He can also create complex characters, serve up a lovely description, concoct a sophisticated love scene. If you like elegance, Furst’s for you.

This level of writing is far above the setting of ‘Dark Voyage,’ which tracks an aging Dutch freighter in the late spring of 1941. As the book opens, the Noordendam is in the Mediterranean port of Tangier, and its captain — known only by his last name, DeHaan — is on his way to a meeting with a mysterious man in a backstreet restaurant. (Shades of ‘Casablanca,’ and then some.) With the advent of war, DeHaan learns, his rusty ship will have a new, clandestine purpose: ferrying military supplies and men of uncertain identity to destinations of certain trouble.

A Furst novel is far more than an action plot. There are lovely descriptions of the daily life of a boat: "They began the wide sweep that would send them back the way they came — the equivalent, for this five-thousand-ton monster, of pacing back and forth." There is crisp military history, impeccably researched. There is trivia of a very high order: "If you’ve decided to end it all, and you want to make sure, fill your mouth with water and put the muzzle of the gun in there — you’ll blow the back of your head off." There is death at its most unsentimental: "He saw the Triton, but not the Maud McDowell, because it wasn’t there. It wasn’t sinking, it wasn’t burning. It wasn’t."

And there are conversations that are taut in the extreme.

"Nobody can see the future," DeHaan said, "but promises are sometimes kept, even by governments."

"Yes, now and then," Yacoub said.

There is, DeHaan observes, "nothing quite like danger to cure the bullshit of modern life," and this novel is wonderfully eloquent on that score in a way I’ve never encountered before. That’s because danger is the air everyone breathes in zones where it’s hard to identify ultimate loyalties, and that is the case on every page of this book. There is a large climax, and the danger couldn’t be more acute, but by the time it appears, our antennae have been up for so long that we are — like DeHaan and his men — ever so slightly immune to fear. In that state, we think — as the characters think — in larger categories: fate and hope and destiny and history. And so, when the book ends, I suspect I’m not the only reader who has two opposite reactions at once: total surprise and total acceptance.

How can a writer pack so much life into a story that lasts just a month? In Furst’s case, it’s because he has found his life’s work, and he knows it: "It’s like an individual says, ‘I think what I want to do in life is collect something.’ And then he says, ‘I think what I want to do is collect stamps.’ And then he says, ‘And I think what I want to do in life is Europe between 1810 and 1890.’ And then eventually he says, ‘What I want to do is Luxembourg, between 1840 and 1850.’ That’s me. I think that’s everybody, but it’s certainly me."

This is a writer who will "sit down by the fireplace on a cold winter night and curl up around a diplomatic history of Rumania." And then labor over his writing so that each book becomes sharper, clearer, more stylish. Credible characters in remarkable situations — when that match is expertly made, we’re always hooked.

But there’s another reason that Alan Furst — who has long been popular in England — is now catching on with readers like me. It’s that the European years from 1933 to 1945 finally resonate with Americans in a way that goes far beyond the heroics of the Greatest Generation. "I’m writing about people who are attacked, who are damaged by the kind of people who damaged us on 9/11, people to whom human life is not valuable," Furst has said. "The idea that I would write something else never occurred to me. I have greater conviction than ever."

And so, he explains, "I am not in the business of making people feel bad. I’m in the business of telling people how it might possibly turn out, that in this situation love conquers all. There is a character in The World At Night that says that love doesn’t conquer all. But still I think it’s a good idea for us to believe that. It’s better for us to believe that. It’s better for writers to believe that. It’s better for writers to make that happen."

My kind of writer. My kind of book. I’m off to get a big stack of Furst novels and, savoring every minute, catch up with his very savvy fans.

To read a riveting interview with Alan Furst, click here.