Blood of Victory by Alan Furst
Random House 2002 237 pp. $24.95
Copyright © Steven E. Alford
1940: Europe is at war. Beneath the drone of aircraft engines and the pop-pop of automatic weapons fire, civilians struggle quietly to survive today, hopeful they'll awaken the next.
In this, Alan Furst's world, comfortable sensualists find themselves called to duty, surprising themselves and others at their moral strength and physical fortitude.
In this, his seventh novel, the wonderful Blood of Victory, we are introduced to Ilya Aleksandrovich Serebin, "Half Russian aristocrat, half Bolshevik Jew. A dog of our times, apparently." Forty-two, a man of modestly independent means, Serebin authored the novels The Silver Tower and Ulskaya Street. A decorated Hero of the Soviet Union, he now serves as the executive secretary of the International Russian Union, a Paris-based émigré organization.
Happy to coast along in genteel affluence, Serebin thought that "In this life there is only one thing worth waking up for in the morning, and it isn't getting out of bed and facing the world."
His comfortable life is shaken, however, by a romantic encounter with the lovely (and married) Marie-Galante Labonniere on a ship bound for Istanbul.
Attending an Istanbul party of Marie-Galante's friends, he meets "the beau monde of émigré Istanbul. Like a giant broom, the war had swept them all to the far edge of Europe." There he encounters a friendly but mysterious man who quietly introduces him to a plot to destroy German's capacity to fuel their machines of war.
The Germans had produced oil from the hydrogenation of coal, the Bergius process, which provided “ninety-five percent of the Luftwaffe's aviation gasoline." Despite this, they were still heavily dependent on Romanian oil. How could a group of reasonably wealthy but virtually powerless Europeans presume to take on the all-powerful Reich?
Previous Allied efforts to sabotage the oil Romanian fields proved to be more effort than they were worth. A new plot is hatched: rather than attacking the oil, this secretive group of spies decides to block passage of the oil from Romania to Germany, spawning an ambitious and dangerous plan to obstruct the main artery of transport, the mighty Danube. To do so, they must recruit barge pilots, make deals for heavy equipment with the unsuspecting Germans, and survive bombs and weapons fire as they attempt to carry out their heroic task.
In lieu of bromides about “the greatest generation,” Furst situates us alongside ordinary people faced with extraordinary decisions to make—ones affecting their lives, their family, their country. His stories share the poignant beauty of all tragedy, from Oedipus to Casablanca, the conviction that we must act, accompanied by the knowledge that despite our action, sadness and death are the inevitable result. As readers, we know something Furst’s characters don’t—the outcome of the war—knowledge which fades to insignificance in our absorption in their dilemmas.
Furst's characters are infected by a sense of loyalty, duty, and, above all, trust, that leads them to make sacrifices that are all the more impressive for their quiet heroism. Blood of Victory continues the impressive line of Furst’s pan-European narratives that, like the characters that inhabit them, inspire loyalty and love.