Novel Celebrates a Fallible Spy With Tousled Hair

Posted June 28, 2010 at 4:00pm

When people recall World War II, they tend to cite the following haunting images: Adolf Hitler and the Gestapo imprisoning millions of Jews into concentration camps, Benito Mussolini trying to get Italy a piece of the world pie and American forces finally stepping in to save the day. But the fact is, it was a world war, so what about the involvement of all the other countries who fought on the side of the Allies?

In Alan Furst’s newest historical fiction novel, “Spies of the Balkans,” he chronicles the role of Greece in World War II through the lens of a small Grecian community, Salonika. He specifically highlights the town’s lead detective, Costa Zannis, who aids a British spy in Paris and works independently to help Jews escape through the cross-continental train system.

War junkies and fiction fans alike can appreciate the novel; you don’t have to be a war expert to understand the intricacies of the plot. Furst has a subtle way of disguising background references as dialogue, without making it sound like a boring history lesson.

In one scene, Furst depicts the tone of the political climate in 1940s Europe through a humorous conversation between Zannis and a British spy posing as a travel writer. Zannis asserts that “it must be hard to find places to write about, with a war going on.”

The spy responds that he only covers “the neutrals. ‘On Skis in Frosty Switzerland! A Visit to Sunny Spain!’ And, truth to tell, it’s hard to reach even those countries.” Through this dialogue, which is posed as a very natural and believable conversation, the reader gathers important information: Even the neutral countries aren’t safe during war.

If there’s one thing that Furst excels at, it’s his ability to capture rich imagery through his unique description of characters. Furst gradually reveals that Zannis has “a wide generous mouth and, behind steel framed eyeglasses, very blue eyes: lively eyes,” “skin a pale olive color,” “a thick muscular body and only an inch of belly above his belt” and “dry black hair which, despite being combed with water in the morning, was tousled by the time he reached the office and made him look younger, and softer, than he was.”

Furst employs another compelling literary technique when he parallels foreboding weather with the impending war, which eventually affects northern Greece. The very first scene in the novel states that “the storm began in the north, where sullen clouds lay over the mountain villages on the border of Bulgaria and Greece.” Later in the novel, when the prospect of war is becoming more likely in the town of Salonika, the “gray sky wouldn’t go away, seagulls circled above the port, their cries doing nothing to disperse the melancholy,” which consequently resembles the feeling of helplessness spreading throughout the community. In the end of the book, when Greece is invaded, the bombs are depicted like rain: “At first light the clouds turned pearl gray, when the first bombs fell on Salonika.”

But don’t be misled by the guise of a war theme, because Furst’s novel isn’t an action-packed sequence of events on bloody battlefields. In fact, most of the scenes take place in coffee shops, hotels and offices. The book, which parallels the long, drawn-out process of war, doesn’t even culminate until the end. However, the slow pace and the intertwining of Zannis’ daily detective duties with his wartime efforts only add to the realism.

Another aspect that created a sense of realism throughout the novel was that the protagonist is depicted as an imperfect hero. For one thing, his sidekick is a sweet, fluffy dog named Melissa, and his scattered love interests throughout the story include a spy (unbeknownst to him), a mistress and a married woman. At one point when he is in the Army, Zannis is hurt in an explosion and unable to help anyone else. He sits down and holds his head in his hands.

Furst doesn’t have Zannis saving the world or single-handedly ending the war, but he does credit him with helping 40 Jews escape from enemy lines. In the end of the book, he successfully completes his mission to deliver an important figure to the British Army. Zannis is imperfect, but he seems real, which is why the book makes for an entertaining read.