Alan Furst Looks at Ordinary People During the War

© Nicholas Guerin/Corbis
© Nicholas Guerin/Corbis

Nobody in my books is political in a deep way. They do what they do because of some sense of internal right, a question of living with yourself

In Spies of the Balkans (2010), his 10th work of World War II–era historical fiction, best-selling spy novelist Alan Furst tracks an escape route for Jews fleeing the Nazis. Its tricky way wends from a Berlin resistance cell, led by a German colonel’s Jewish wife; through the northern Greek port of Salonika; thence to neutral Turkey. Furst observes, “Once your reader identifies with the characters, the question that’s never stated but is in every line is: What would you do?”

Why are your books usually set in Eastern and Central Europe?
For spy novels, it’s a natural. It’s been a highly contested area politically for centuries, complete with espionage and intrigue: the Ottoman Empire, the Hapsburg Empire, Tsarist Russia, and so on. The Ottomans occupied Greece for 300 years.

How do you devise your plots?
I can’t write a plot. My books follow historical events. What I do is, I read the political history of the area and search for what I call “the clandestine subplot.”

What’s that?
That’s where whatever was done had to be done quietly and secretly. In Blood of Victory (2003), for instance, the French and British secret services try to impede the flow of Romanian oil to Germany. That’s historically true. It’s also terribly Ludlum-esque; some of these attempts were apparently leaked to the Germans through international oil company executives in London. So it’s a commonplace thriller plot, but it’s also what happened—although many histories I read about this were clearly uncomfortable discussing it.

People prefer to have World War II simpler, the all-good war. Events like these blur that image. So do my characters. Below the upper echelons, I think people are more or less the same—a jumble of motives and opportunities. My German characters don’t foam at the mouth. Most of them are just doing their jobs, even if they’re working for the devil. My books are about people with ordinary lives responding to evil simply because they’re asked to.

For example?
After the war in France, they asked French citizens who had been involved with the escape routes for downed airmen and others why they’d done it. The answer was almost universally the same: I was asked. Which means if they hadn’t been, they might not have joined the Resistance. It was, after all, very, very dangerous to be involved. But when their patriotism was, in a way, solicited, they were happy to respond. Risk and all.

What’s your Balkan “clandestine subplot”?

Mussolini invades Greece for a really stupid reason: his feelings of competition with Hitler, who owns almost all of Europe. What did Mussolini do? He went into France at the end of blitzkrieg and invaded Nice. But he needs more. So he invades Greece. And the Greeks kick his ass back up to Albania. Every day they inflict symbolic damage on the Axis, so Hitler gets madder; he can’t afford to let this happen. The Greeks, of course, know this. They also know that when the Germans invade, there’ll be nothing they can really do about it. So from late October 1940 to early April 1941 everyone is waiting, knowing what’s going to happen. That gets mixed up with the Greek idea of fate. So the whole emotional content of the book really rides on this question: What are these people going to do daily? And all the difficulties involved in that.

Why set the story in Salonika?

It’s a place dedicated to individual freedom, historically. It was a Jewish center known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans. My reading showed me it was a major outlet for fugitives from Europe. In the book, when the Gestapo detective Hauser starts looking into this, he goes over a list of ports that are possible problems, including Odessa and Marseille. Salonika doesn’t even come up.
Describe your main character.
Costa Zannis is a good policeman in Salonika. He’s actually running a rather private office where they deal with political problems that arise for the police, but that regular detectives aren’t really capable of solving or dealing with fully.

Why make a cop your hero?
In 20 years of reading history, I’ve discovered that when one nation defeats and occupies another, the police play a pivotal role. If they don’t go along, it’s much harder for the occupiers because the police have deep knowledge of the local population: names, addresses, who these people are and what they’ve done—exactly what you need to know if you have an army sitting there. Given time, the military police and general staff will find a lot of this out. But it takes a lot of additional time.

How is Zannis drawn into anti-Nazi intrigues?
First, he captures a German spy. There’s never any question of holding him. They’re just gonna try to get information out of him and if he’s not willing, they’ll return him to his consulate. Zannis is involved with a British consular employee who turns out to be a spy. Then he meets Emilia Krebs, Jewish wife of a German General Staff colonel, who is trying to smuggle two Jewish kids to Istanbul. When they’re turned back at the border, she goes to Salonika’s large Jewish community to find help. That’s how she meets Zannis.

Why does he sign on?
She never really gives him a choice. She sets it up so he sees that kids are involved. Then he sees the kids himself, just briefly—but it’s enough. People find ways to believe. Nobody in my books is political in a deep way. They do what they do because of some sense of internal right, a question of living with yourself.


How does Zannis help?
By creating an escape route using policemen across the Balkans. They communicate using the police teletypes the Nazis actually foisted on the Balkan countries to compensate for their trade imbalance.

Zannis and Hauser have some traits in common.
They’re both good cops, so they do the same sorts of things. For instance, Zannis talks to the well-connected woman who tried to have Salonika’s mayor shot, and tells her, “Look, we know who you are, don’t do it again.” On virtually the next page, in Berlin, Hauser goes to Emilia and doesn’t do anything; he just says, “We’re wondering about your friends who’ve disappeared, do you know anything about this? No? OK, see you later.” That’s it. But it’s enough—enough that he knocked on the door, showed up. Emilia flees almost immediately. She knows she can still get out, but she’s surrounded by people who can’t. She doesn’t want to wait and become one of them. Like Zannis, Hauser gets what he wants: he closes this particular hole that’s been punched in the system.

Why feature a British spy network?
The British had played a prominent role in Greece since Lord Byron fought against the Turks in the early 19th century. At the time of the novel, they had about 50,000 Commonwealth troops there. They sold the Greeks shore guns.

Who are your favorite historians?

I love those huge French texts by Fernand Braudel and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, describing people about whom history wasn’t normally written. What were normal people like? How did wars affect them? There’s Steven Runciman’s The Sicilian Vespers: What happened in the streets of 13th century Palermo that set off these uprisings? John Lukacs does the same things for Hungary and Romania in the forties.

 Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst. 288 pp. Random House, 2010. $26.

2 Responses

  1. JIMBO

    this is a great explanation of the writting . good job


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.