David Edgerley Gates
I mentioned last time around that I'd discovered a new enthusiasm, the Bernie Gunther mystery series written by Philip Kerr. These are period stories, set mostly during WWII, and because Bernie's a German homicide cop, he has to answer to the Nazi chain of command.
I picked up on Bernie mid-stride, reading A MAN WITHOUT BREATH first - the ninth book, which takes place in 1943, and involves the murder of Polish military prisoners by the Russians, at Katyn. My habit, generally, if I happen on a writer I like, is to go back and read their books in the order they were written. Right? Seems only fair. In this case, as it was with Alan Furst, I snatched up what was immediately available, and took one step forward, with THE LADY FROM ZAGREB, and one step back, with PRAGUE FATALE, and then FIELD GRAY. Next on the list is the Berlin Noir trilogy, the first three Bernie novels. I couldn't help myself. I grabbed whatever title was on the library shelf. I was too impatient to wait my turn.
I think there are three elements that make the books so fascinating. The first is historical irony. In more than one novel, actually, the story's framed with a look back, from the later 1940's or the early 1950's. Secondly, there's a constant sense of threat, the Nazi regime a bunch of backstabbers, and Bernie hangs on princes' favors. One dangerous patron is Reinhard Heydrich, a chilly bastard who meets an appropriate end. And thirdly, Bernie is really trying to be a moral person, against all odds. You go along to get along, to simply survive, in a nest of vipers, and hope it doesn't rub off on you. After seeing the Special Action Groups at work in Russia, and himself participating, Bernie is sickened by the whole enterprise. He suspects, too, that the handwriting's on the wall.
Bernie's a Berliner, a guy with street smarts, and too smart a mouth. He fought in the first war, in the trenches, and started out as a cop during Weimar. He has no politics. He's as contemptuous, early on, of the Communists as he is of the Nazis, and then, the better he gets to know the Nazis as they consolidate their power, he comes to realize they aren't the lesser of two evils. They are evil. And it does rub off on you.
This is the question often raised in Alan Furst's books, and the two writers have some things in common, aside from the time-frame and the context of their novels. We don't in fact know how we might behave at a personal breaking point, in the context of Vichy France or Nazi Berlin. It's comforting to think we might Bogart through, but daily life becomes an enormous struggle, for the simplest of things. Having a conscience, or a moral compass, might be a luxury we couldn't afford. We might not rise to the occasion. One of Bernie's superiors in Minsk even quotes Luther - "Here I stand" - and then dismisses it. You can't be serious, he tells Bernie. There's no room for that.
And in the middle of all this, institutionalized murder, mass hysteria, people still commit common crimes for common reasons. They kill people for shoes, or bread, or envy. FIELD GRAY has Bernie trying to solve a homicide inside a POW camp. The fact that he's a POW, and the camp is run by the Russians, only makes the whole thing more surreal. Often enough, it isn't some crazed Nazi weirdness at work, although that usually informs it. Everything's out of square. The truly strange thing is that you begin to see this unbalanced world as somehow the norm, at least to the degree of understanding how to navigate it, and once you go there, you've stepped over the edge. The pit opens.
27 April 2016
14 November 2012
by David Edgerley Gates
[I had thought to preempt this post with remarks about SKYFALL, the newest Bond picture, the best in years, and I decided, not; or to comment about the fall of David Petraeus, but anything I had to say would be speculation at this point.]
Alan Furst, no more than Charles McCarry, shouldn’t need an introduction, or at least I hope not. He was, for a time, something of an acquired taste, but then a hot agent got ahold of him, he jumped publishers, and they turned him into a household name, at least in my household.
He himself names Eric Ambler as a chief influence, and you can easily see it. The darkened Polish railway stations, or perhaps French, the dubious alliances, the quiet men in the shadows who admit no loyalty either way, or the loud patriots that generally don’t survive chapter two. This is the slippery no-man’s-land of real espionage.
The earlier books, NIGHT SOLDIERS, for example, work on a broad canvas: the Iron Guard, the Spanish Civil War, the world war itself, and even after. The later books curl in on themselves, narrower, more hermetic, if no less fluent and convincing, but sideshows of sideshows, Greece, or Norway. The trick is that we know how the war turned out. But in 1939, or 1940, or even 1943, nobody on the ground had any real confidence Hitler was going to be beaten. And his proxies were everywhere, the Fascists going after the Italian press in exile (THE FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT), or a local cop trying to save Jews leaving Germany (SPIES OF THE BALKANS), knowing the Gestapo already have him in their sights. They are often stories about everyday heroism, and if not bravery, then endurance.
THE WORLD AT NIGHT came out in 2002. One reviewer remarked that it was like seeing CASABLANCA for the first time. I think this is pretty much on the money. “These papers have expired…” Paris, the German occupation. Gas rationing, and so on, ordinary and everyday life made inconvenient, if not always for the privileged. The guy at the center of the story is a French movie producer, who keeps working under the Nazis. He makes silly comedies, nothing politically inconvenient. Because he can move easily between France and Portugal, or France and Italy, he comes to the attention of British intelligence, and this of course bodes ill. But the point of the story isn’t the spook shit, it’s his increasing moral burden. It reminds me of André Cayatte’s PASSAGE DU RHIN (TOMORROW IS MY TURN in American release, terrible title), which is also about the occupation of Paris, ambiguous loyalties, and difficult personal choices.
The question posed in THE WORLD AT NIGHT is how we ourselves might behave, not in the face of inhumanity, per se (the Holocaust is far off the page), but in the actual daily humiliation of living under an occupying power. Why and how would we resist, or would we simply accept it? The dog barks, the caravan passes. The lights stay on, the cafés and brasseries are open, the wine gets poured, the choucroute garni is served. “This ought to take the sting out of Occupation,” Sam says in CASABLANCA, lifting his glass to toast Ilsa and Rick. The difference, in Furst’s story, is the lack of romance– Casson, the hero, gets into bed with enough good-looking women, but it’s not romantic in the sense of being a fairytale, of taking place in a world of heightened, and reductive, passions. The book is anchored in very simple, pedestrian realities. What the guy gets sucked into could easily get him killed. (There’s a terrific set-piece of a jailbreak, for instance.) And something else, that his choices are incremental, as ours in life so often are. They aren’t sudden. They don’t add up to a turning of the earth, until it’s too late to go back on them. Casson, essentially, backs himself into a place of no retreat. It feels very real, but also entirely necessary, as if, without foreknowledge, he took the path of least resistance, and found himself, or honor, something he never expected.
The ending is a jaw-dropper, which I won’t give away. Suffice it to say that it seems so uncharacteristic, but when looking back over the book, so utterly characteristic, it takes your breath away. I was flattened by it.
Heroes, like spies, often wear odd uniforms, and change their clothes more than once, if not their stripes. THE WORLD AT NIGHT is about a man who refuses to change his clothes. It’s about the intransigence of human nature, or its resilience. We’re mortal, and of course weak. When we rise to the occasion, as some of us have, it’s generally accident. Here, too. But the occasion of accident doesn’t mean our motives are false. Intentions count for little, in the end. To my mind, this is why THE WORLD AT NIGHT is so compelling: a man’s worth is in what he does, not in who he hopes or imagines himself to be.